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Companies that actively make work meaningful within their organizations can significantly enhance workplace performance and engagement. So say a team of researchers, Susie Cranston and Scott Keller, who have studied meaning in the workplace and go so far as to measure it with a Meaning Quotient.

Meaning and Performance Matter

cover of flowWhen asked what’s missing in their workplace experiences, most employees answer, “Meaning.” A sense that what they do every day actually matters. People want to do something that will make a real and significant difference in the lives of others. When their work possesses meaning, employees rise to a level of performance the psychologist Mihàly Csìkszentmihàlyi describes as “flow.”

In sports this state of high performance is called “being in the zone.” In music, it’s in the “groove.” Csìkszentmihàlyi observed in thousands of research subjects that when people fully employ their core capabilities to meet a challenge, they move into this state of flow. When they do, they not only become more productive, they gain greater satisfaction from their efforts.

A host of workplace conditions contribute to creating, establishing, and maintaining the state of flow. You’ve heard most of them already—role clarity, clear objectives, access to resources, collaboration, trust, respect, constructive conflict, humor, and fun. Adding meaning raises performance to the level of flow.

Citing Csìkszentmihàlyi and flow, Cranston and Keller offer three strategies to help you make meaning in Increasing the ‘meaning quotient’ of work.

Tell five stories at once

After identifying five ways leaders commonly try to make meaning with stories, they recommend blending five kinds of turnaround stories into one story. Turnaround stories include “good to great” exhortations to: 1. improve, 2. make a better world, 3. do better for your customers, 4. do better for your team, and 5. do better for yourself.

According to the work of Cranston and Keller, turnaround stories that include all five elements motivate employees far more than any single-element story.

Let employees write their own stories

Any reader familiar with this blog understands that most effective leaders spend more time asking questions than telling employees what to do. In a simple experiment involving lottery tickets, Cranston and Keller compared the value subjects placed on tickets with already-given numbers against tickets with numbers selected by the subjects themselves. The latter turned out to be considered five times more valuable.

Autonomy, this simple experiment demonstrates, is a powerful maker of meaning and performance.

Motivate with small, unexpected rewards

The researchers found that recognition as small as a thank-you note can disproportionately increase meaning in an employee’s mind. They conclude that employees get greater appreciation as well as a greater sense of meaning from receiving rewards that are unexpected.

I’ve also explored this maker of meaning and performance in Small Wins Mean Bigger Grins.

What are you going to do this week to create meaning for yourself, your team, your customers. And your organization?


Helanie Scott
Helanie Scott
Helanie (pronounced yeh-LAH-nee) Scott, CEO and founder of Align4Profit in Dallas, Texas, has driven stunning leadership and cultural transformations for an impressive list of organizations. She has mastered the ability to connect with her audiences in the boardroom, classroom, on stage, or in one-on-one coaching sessions. Helanie’s Align4Profit clients rave at the way her engaging programs freshen outdated mindsets and deliver results-oriented, aligned action.