Feb 01, 2013

The Meaning Quotient

How often at work do you have that great feeling of being “in the zone”?

According to an article by Susie Cranston and Scott Keller in the McKinsey Quarterly, you’re lucky if it’s 10% of your time. Still, that time is incredibly important and well worth trying to expand.

The authors explain, “When we ask executives during the peak-performance exercise how much more productive they were at their peak than they were on average . . . we get a range of answers, but the most common at senior levels is an increase of five times.”

Five times is a lot. The authors say peak performance is most likely to come from organizations that have mastered not only the intellectual quotient of work (the rational parts) and the emotional quotient of work (people’s not-always-rational feelings about it), but also the “meaning quotient” of work, which they dub “MQ.”

The problem is that many organizations don’t know how to make their employees feel a sense of meaning or purpose. “Inspirational visions, along the lines of Walt Disney’s ‘make people happy’ or Google’s ‘organize the world’s information,’ have little relevance if you produce ball bearings or garage doors,” they write. As an alternative, organizations should consider three things to make work more meaningful:

  1. Tell stories that touch not only on internal workings of the company but also on the broader beneficial effects of the business on society, the customer and the employee.
  2. Let employees craft a lot of their own processes and solutions.
  3. Give small, unexpected rewards.

While we’re not sure if the third item on the list really fits in terms of “meaning,” we’re certain that Peter Drucker would have agreed with the first two points. In fact, he was busy making them some 70 years ago.

Photo credit: Chris Willis

Photo credit: Chris Willis

In Concept of the Corporation, published in 1946, Drucker explained that wartime production had taught manufacturers the importance of making work meaningful. “Plant management was forced to use its imagination to establish a relation between the war-worker and his product, not out of humanitarian reasons for the sake of greater efficiency,” he wote. “They have also come to understand that, in the past, they have been deficient in imagination and have failed to see both the worker’s need for a relation to his work, and the way in which this need can be answered.”

Sometimes this meant flying in a completed fighter jet just so that everyone could see it.  Sometimes, it just meant talking about it.

As for letting employees craft their own responses and solutions, this, likewise, became an enduring theme of Drucker’s work. In the 1940s, it was a matter of freeing workers up from the uniform assembly line and allowing them to help design and organize the manufacturing process. By the 1980s and ’90s, it was a matter of getting the knowledge worker to think in terms of contribution. Specifically, as laid out in Management Challenges for the 21stCentury, Drucker hoped workers would ask the following question: “How could I make the greatest contribution with my strengths, my way of performing, my values, to what needs to be done?

What do you think? How can companies that produce ball bearings (or the knowledge-work equivalents) best instill a sense of meaning in the workplace?

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