Senior executives routinely undermine creativity, productivity, and commitment by damaging the inner work lives of their employees,” say Harvard’s Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. Amabile and her associates have successfully studied the inner work life of employees. And often, the picture is not very pretty.
These aren’t union leaders. This is management. The sample isn’t from the factory floor or your local public school. No. These are business professionals. The objective of the research was to better understand the role of upper-level management. To get at that objective, Amabile and Kramer dug back into 12,000 electronic diaries from dozens of professionals working on important innovation projects at seven North American companies. They selected only entries from diarists who mentioned bosses—868 narratives in all.
Progress: Key to meaningful work
As the researchers remind us, understanding the traps should help execs determine whether they risk falling into some of the traps themselves—unknowingly. And dragging their organization into the abyss with them.
In their book, The Progress Principle, Amabile and Kramer argue that managers routinely—and unwittingly—undermine the meaningfulness of work for their subordinates through “everyday words and actions.” They found “that of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” So, they wanted to see whether meaningful progress is on the radar screen. In survey research of 669 managers at all level from dozens of companies and industries around the world, they sought to rank five employee motivators: incentives, recognition, clear goals, interpersonal support, and progress in the work.
Their conclusion, reported in the McKinsey Journal, reveals that most managers and execs don’t act as though progress matters to their direct reports. Only 8 percent of senior executives ranked progress as the most important motivator. Had they chosen randomly, 20 percent would have done so. In short, our survey showed that most executives don’t understand the power of progress in meaningful work. And the traps revealed by the diaries suggest that most executives don’t act as though progress matters.
But back to the first research. The study revealed four traps that leaders fall into—often inadvertently.
- Mediocrity signals. The diaries that the researchers studied were full of references to innovation. Yet, those senior managers were so focused on cost savings that they repeatedly negated their teams’ autonomy dictating cost reduction goals that were primary. By the end of the diary reports, employees were “completely disengaged.” Mediocrity was also signaled by top managers’ risk aversion.
- Strategic ‘attention deficit disorder.’ A second trap, far too familiar for those of us who’ve done much consulting, was starting and then abandoning initiatives, making for an attention deficit disorder. What workers call “the fad of the day.” Of course, if execs don’t have their act together on where the organization is heading, the troops will quickly lose the joy of work.
- Corporate Keystone Kops. You remember those Keystone Kops from the silent films—fictional policemen, running around in circles and bashing each other on the head. Some execs contribute to the “comedy” by failing to hold support organizations accountable, overly complex reporting structures and last minute changes. A chronic indecisiveness.
- Misbegotten ‘big, hairy, audacious goals.’ It’s important for organizations to give strategic direction, audacious, relevant goals, articulated in a way connects with peoples’ values and emotions. (Google’s stated mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In contrast, the researchers found that goals are stated in ways that seem unattainable and vague, even empty.
What to do?
Although Amabile and Kramer don’t address it head on, this is a masterful study of the creation of strong motivation. Think about that subtext: leaders must create forward momentum in meaningful work. Leaders who can provide meaningful work for their employees are on the road to success.
FYI: As I’ve worked through these recommendations, thought over their implications and seen their immense relevance, four issues kept cropping up in my ever-busy gray matter:
- The notion of meaningful work has a long history, dating from the Reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin both spoke to the importance of meaningful work in ways that haven’t been on our 20th and 21st century radar screen. But some workers are caught in meaningless work. Flipping burgers is little more than a few bucks in the pocket of a teen-ager or poorly-educated adult.
- Amabile and Kramer’s conclusion are spot-on. They couldn’t be more accurate. On those occasions where they’ve been implemented, the productivity rates skyrocket.
- Most leaders don’t think in terms of the subjective or of soft power. Yet when they do, success is often inevitable.
- When someone asks me why, at my age, I haven’t retired, I have one answer. “I’m having too much fun. My contributions have been exceedingly meaningful for me as well as for others. Why would I want to retire?” Duhhhhhh.
Want to motivate your employees? Make sure their work is meaningful.
Photo from Flickr: Intermayer