How to Be a Meaning Maker at Work

Have you ever felt that work didn’t feel like work but more like play? Musicians talk about being “in the groove,” and sportsmen being “in the zone.” Research shows two thirds of employees are not engaged at work. Why is it so hard for us to feel we are in our “sweet spot” every day, every moment?

In McKinsey Quarterly’s Increasing the ‘Meaning Quotient’ of Work, two McKinsey consultants argues that while Intelligent Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Quotient (EQ) are the pre-requisites for creating a high-performance culture, but far from enough to achieve organizational health in isolation. What is sorely missing at work a third category called Meaning Quotient (MQ) that is defined as a belief that “what’s happening really matters, that what’s being done has not been done before or that it will make a difference to others.”

More than 5,000 executives were asked on what conditions made them feel they were experiencing personal peak performance, and their answers fall into three categories:

IQ – These are questions that appeal to our rational mind, including role clarity, clear understanding of objectives and access to the knowledge and resources need to get the job done.

EQ – At the heart of human beings, we are inherently emotional being. As leaders, have you established a baseline of trust and respect, constructive conflict, a sense of humor, a general feeling that “we’re in this together,” and the corresponding ability to collaborate effectively?

MQ – Do you feel peak-performance as involving high stakes; excitement; a challenge; and something that the individual feels matters will make a difference? When you have a low MQ, you invest less and consider it “just a job” and are only in for the paycheck.

Now, what can you do to become a meaning maker in your organization?

Tip #1: Tell Five Stories at Once

tellLeaders typically tell two types of stories. The first story tells about its turnaround story such as “We’re performing below industry standard and must change dramatically to survive – incremental change is not sufficient to attract investors to our underperforming company.” The second story is a good-to-great that runs along the lines of “We are capable of far more, given our assets, market position, skills, and loyal staff, and can become the undisputed leader in our industry for the foreseeable future.”

The problems with these stories are, it fails to inspire meaning to everyone. Studies show that there are four other sources that give individuals a sense of meaning, answering the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?):

  • Society – for instance, making a better society, building the community or stewarding resources
  • The customer – for instance, making life easier and providing a superior service or product
  • The working team – for instance, a sense of belonging, a caring environment, or working together efficiently and effectively
  • Themselves – examples include personal development, a higher paycheck or bonus, and a sense of empowerment

Tip#2: Let employees ‘write their own lottery ticket’

mini-CIMG2886The best meaning makers spend more time asking then telling. Read the following famous experiment:  

“In one of Daniel Kahneman’s famous experiments, researchers ran a lottery with a twist. Half of the participants were randomly assigned a lottery ticket. The remaining half were given a blank piece of paper and asked to write down any number they pleased. Just before drawing the winning number, the researchers offered to buy back the tickets from their holders. The question they wanted to answer was how much more would you have to pay people who “wrote their own number” than people who received a number randomly. The rational answer should be no difference at all, since a lottery is pure chance, and therefore every ticket number, chosen or assigned, has the same odds of winning. A completely rational actor might even want to pay less for a freely chosen number, given the possibility of duplicate ones. The actual answer? Regardless of geography or demographics, researchers found they had to pay at least five times more to those who chose their own number.”

This experiment reveals a distinguishing hallmark of human nature. That is, we are more committed to the outcome when we choose things for ourselves.

Here’s an example of how to apply the lessons of the lottery-ticket experiment in your organization.

“The head of financial services at one global bank we know first wrote down his change story, shared it with his team for feedback, and then in effect asked all individual team members to write their own lottery ticket: what change story, in each of the businesses, supported the wider message? His team members in turn wrote change stories, shared them with their teams, and the process continued all the way to the front line. Although this method took far longer than the traditional road-show approach, the return on commitment to the program was considered well worth the investment and an important reason the bank achieved roughly two times its revenue-per-banker-improvement targets.”

Strategy #3: Use small, unexpected rewards to motivate

thank-you-noteResearch has shown limitations of financial incentives when linked to business objectives. In Mean Genes, the two authors describe an experiment in which 50% of a group of people using a photocopier found a dime in the coin-return slot. When asked of their level of satisfaction, those who got the dime scored an average of 6.5 on a scale to 1 to 7, while those who didn’t scored just 5.6. The lesson here is that when we aren’t expecting a reward, even a small one can have a disproportionate effect on our state of mind. Here’s some examples organizational leaders have leveraged this motivational effect:

  • Indra Nooyi, CEO of PeipsiCo – she sends out spouses of her top team handwritten thank-you letters.
  • John McFarlane, ANZ Bank – He gave all employees a bottle of champagne for Christmas, with a card thanking them for their work on a major change program
  • John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo – He sent out personal thank-you notes to all the employees who had been involved on the first anniversary of its change program with specific messages related to the impact of their individual work.

Question: What will you do tomorrow to inject meaning in your workplace? 


  • Lynn Hare

    Paul,
    Great post. I especially like the final point about small, unexpected rewards. I just finished reading a book called “365 Thank Yous” by John Kralik. He describes his personal transformation after a year in which he wrote a thank you note a day. He was surprised to find how many people responded positively to his expressions of gratitude. He built strong relationships in his business, friends, and family based on his affirmations. He was an attorney. He thanked clients who paid on time.

    Kralik says was changed into a deeply caring man in the process.

    • Lynn – that sounds like an great experiment. Due to our sinful nature as human beings, I think we often take things for granted, thus making us ungrateful and prideful. This effect desensitizes us from our relationship with God. Another book entitled “The Richest Man Who Ever Lived” talks about a man who was told by a mentor to read a chapter of Proverbs everyday for over a year or so. He found his life thoroughly transformed and blessed in this process.

    • Thanks for sharing that story Lynn. So interesting how writing thank you notes can help change a person to be more caring. It seems like it’s true that actions can change feelings.

  • Great post Paul! Keep up the great work

  • Great read – awesome way to start my morning!

    • Thanks for reading my blog! You woke up very early today. Do you usually wake up that early? Looking forward to our Monday training!