Is Meaning as Important as Skill?

Note: I was talking with a colleague, Richard Reardon, this week about his newest venture in the world of executive leadership development. It sparked the impetus for the following view at an often overlooked, but essential quality, for anyone in an executive position. Enjoy.

Ask yourself these three questions (from Richard) about your life in the workplace:

  1. What do I like to do?
  2. What am I good at doing?
  3. What do I have the energy to do?

OK, what does that really mean? Invariably, in my work, most people cannot answer those questions or sync them with what they are currently doing for employment. I hear answers like, "the money is good"; "I only live three miles from my office"; and sadly, sometimes, "only 10 more years and I can retire."

From  those same people, I never hear, "what a great place to work!"; "let me tell you about this great project I just wrapped up!" or, heaven forbid, "I really like my job."

The Gallup Corporation has actually quantified it. They have polled American workplaces every two years since 2000 and they have found that 70% of the American workforce is neither emotionally engaged nor working in a job that taps their full potential. Wow! That is a sad statistic and even sadder; that percentage has remained flat since 2000.

So, what is the quality that is missing that translates into 7 out of 10 Americans working at jobs where purpose is absent for them? I believe it is Meaning. What is that? I say it is an orientation to something that is bigger than self, a feeling of having contributed something of value to your community or social group, and feeling that your life has a direction. It is also the key to high performance and fulfillment in any sphere of our existence - the innate need to lead our own destinies, to learn and create new things, and to make our environment better and our world sustainable.

Now I will go you one better; the emergence of a new phenomenon – a desire to have a shared purpose.  This shared purpose makes us wake up in the morning in a good mood and makes us strive to contribute more to society and to grow more individually. If the monetary motivation is not supported by a purposeful motivation, we end up with mediocre products, bad service, and dismal design. 

What you can do if these challenges apply to your business (from Gallup):

  1. Select the right people, especially managers - people engage people, not organizations.
  2. Develop employees' strengths - building employees’ strengths is a far more effective approach than trying to improve weaknesses.
  3. Enhance employees' well-being - employees who are engaged in their jobs are generally in better health and have healthier habits that those who are not engaged or are actively disengaged.

At the end of day, qualities like meaning and shared purpose are not needed by humans to survive, but rather, to thrive. In the words of Carl Jung, “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”

The darker side of the above is what should scare the hell out of all of us; just below the surface, do we all have a secret fear that we may be living a meaningless life?

P.S. Thank you, Richard.