Covid didn’t create the current crisis . . .
Mike Morrison, Ph.D.
Creating Meaningful Change
July 6, 2022
Before Covid there was another crisis brewing in the work world . . . one of meaning. Covid just brought it into sharp reality with wholesale movements like the Great Resignation. When people leave jobs without having a new job lined up . . . we know something is up. Consider this:
1. True: We work hard to both survive and be successful. Those are the two “mindsets” that largely define today’s work world. Unfortunately, both mindsets produce a ton of anxiety. While we may report a sense of “meaning” as we look back and reflect over the accomplishments in our career . . . those feelings of significance, purpose and meaning are way too seldom in our daily work lives. A common response to the question . . . “Why did you quit your job?” Answer: “To get my life back.”
2. Importantly True: We need to bring meaning to the center of our work lives because . . . nothing cuts through the anxiety, chaos, and the inevitable failures like meaning. Basically, meaning serves two of our most basic human needs. It is through meaning-making that we 1) make sense of the world around us (especially our challenges) and 2) bring a sense of significance and purpose to what we do and who we are. We can only fake it for so long.
3. Profoundly True: There is the potential to find meaning in every job. How do we know this? Because in every possible job, there are those who have found purpose and meaning . . . often feeling “called” to what most others would not consider doing! We also know that people are natural meaning seekers and will find meaning . . . even when there doesn’t appear to be any. As holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl reveals, we have “will to meaning” that is difficult to suppress – even when suffering or in deep despair.
4. Paradoxically True: Our research reveals that when people talk about the meaning behind their work, they rarely mention their supervisor and those above them. In other words, it is the meaning they personally create that they will most likely share. It is the nurse who recounts the hours of patient hand-holding during the pandemic so they wouldn’t be alone as they passed. Or the grocery store clerk revealing that during the pandemic it was the first time in their lives that their work felt “deeply vital.”
5. Sadly True: When employees talk about the “meaninglessness” of their work and work lives, they do talk about their supervisors and leaders in the organization. In other words, despite natural tendencies to find meaning in work (no matter how challenging), the most common barrier when it doesn’t occur . . . is the boss. The reasons employees experience meaninglessness falls into three buckets:
One: Lack of support . . . from their supervisor as they seek to adapt their roles to both personal and organizational needs.
Two: Lack of respect . . . in how they are often excluded from decisions impacting them personally.
Three: Lack of integrity . . . managers not living up to organizational values (e.g., “our patients come first” but managers give into the pressure to discharge them early).
First, we should note that bosses are often employees too and also find themselves in the survival and success “mindset traps. Few managers today operate from a meaning-making orientation whe. Rather, they seek to “survive” the day while managing their short-term career interests. That is how the system works . . . and they are simply playing by the rules.
Some good news: There is another path forward . . . a path with meaning at its center . . . and it starts with a simple re-framing of how we define leadership. It is defined in three simple words:
Creating meaningful change.
Change is inevitable. Meaningful change is not. We miss so many opportunities to infuse our work lives with meaning . . . a sense of purpose that not only enhances our well-being but enables new levels of engagement, productivity and collaboration. For example, take the typical cost-cutting initiative that is often implemented within organizations (e.g., a 3% across-the-board cut). Does the leader faithfully (and blindly) make the cuts . . . or see it as an opportunity to reframe the cuts in a more positive, purposeful way that will get the team thinking in new ways?
We bring meaning-making down to ground level with three simple questions that naturally arise when change occurs:
1) Does this change make sense? Help me to understand why we are doing this.
2) Is it purposeful? Show us how it elevates our work and who we are.
3) How will it impact me? Help me to personally align to the change.
We also introduce the leader to the practice of thoughtfulness — a mindset that enables meaningful change. It is through thoughtfulness that the leader infuses the culture with a new spirt. It brings both deeper thinking and compassion to the work environment . . . a humanizing effect that is transformative in nature. It takes the leader out of “reactive” mode and creates a new pacing that is relational in nature.
Our new book (with co-author Clint Kofford), Creating Meaningful Change: The Timeless Path to Transforming Our Work Cultures, reveals how to do it . . . with a few surprises along the way. It launches in September!