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8 Steps for Savvy Leaders to Create Meaning in their Team (Part 2)

In last week’s post, we talked about fostering psychological safety in your team to improve performance.  But it’s only one component.

In addition to psychological safety, our brains also need to feel that the work we are doing is meaningful and that we feel connected to team members.

In this article, we will focus on how team leaders can make work meaningful.  This is really important because poor leadership is associated with undermining meaningfulness according to research from MIT.

The Importance of Meaningful Work

Believing that the work we do is meaningful has been regularly found to be a key employee engagement driver.

People need to feel that their work matters – that they’re contributing and making an impact.

Unfortunately, many employees alternate from feeling valuable at their organisations to being a cog in a big machine.  Most times, it’s because companies focus on adherence to functional requirements such as rules and metrics to reduce errors or incentives to drive performance.

Over time people’s headspace revolves around doing standardised work with little room for creativity.  Creating efficient, scalable business processes can engineer the meaning out of work.

As a team leader, it’s important that you ensure that your team members see meaning in the work they are doing so that you unlock their creativity, fulfilment and fun!

Here are eight steps to do that:

1. Align Everyone to a Socially-Based Company Purpose

One of the common attributes of companies that have high-performance workplace cultures is that they have a clear, well-specified purpose that states both how and why the company makes a positive impact on the world.  It’s their fundamental reason for existence beyond just making money.

This is not a feel-good statement. It actually works towards pulling people forward especially in difficult times (and good). It helps people make better decisions and it generates tremendous energy that aligns everyone together towards a common cause.  The company purpose needs to align with your team purpose (as discussed in the previous article).

Great leaders regularly refer teammates to their company purpose.  A study found that when call centre leaders illuminate how the organisation’s products and services make a difference to customers, employee productivity spiked by 28 per cent per shift.

2. Provide Context

Purpose is what a company stands for and how it creates value for employees, customers and society.  But how does it do that specifically? A company purpose on its own is meaningless without more deeply understanding the impact the organisation generates for clients.

Leaders must endeavour to provide customer-focused information to team members such as:

-Who is the customer (eg: demographics, psychographics, how they like to buy).

-Why your product/service is important to your customer (the value they receive).

-How they are served.

-Current market conditions.

-Brand promises.

-Competitors (and how your product/services differ).

3. Engage with a Compelling Vision

Research studies have found that leaders who communicate using image-based words are more likely to succeed with executing the strategy than those using abstract words or numeric goals.

Avoid always talking about the next sales goal or reduction in expenses.  Paint a vivid picture of the new future and how this will impact customers and employees.

Talk about what the customer user experience will look like.  This gets people thinking in terms of outcomes, rather than activities.  Activities (or the doing part of work) isn’t as meaningful to employees as the future benefit that will be created.  

4. How Employee Contributions Matter

Leaders often discuss how strategies will move the company forward but fail to clarify why employees’ contributions matter. People need to know how their work connects to the organisation’s purpose and vision and what’s in it for them.  Ensure employees understand the value they bring.

Within a team, good leaders must connect how individual contributions help with team effort and the broader purpose of the company. Leaders must champion the right behaviours to ensure that employees act in the best interests of the team and not themselves.

Start by helping each team member understand how they are uniquely contributing to the purpose and improving the lives of customers. Where possible, align projects to match the specific skills or values of employees.

5. Provide Autonomy

Giving people control over their work increases their sense of self-worth, control and satisfaction.  Empower employees to re-engineer processes such as customer service, lead generation or accounts.

Ask employees how they want to do things and give them the freedom to plan and do work their way.

6. Make Feedback a Habit

Providing feedback at an annual performance review isn’t enough.  Accumulating feedback over time is not only too late, but it’s overwhelming and unfair.  The infrequency of feedback means that employees are missing out on regular learning opportunities.  Leaders need to focus on faster feedback loops to accelerate progress towards goals.  It needs to be provided so that employees feel that the leader wants to help them grow (which is a big way to build trust with them).

Millenials have a huge appetite for feedback.  To make feedback really effective, ask people how they want to receive it, so you avoid making people feel stuck or wounded.   

For example, some people prefer that you make yourself available during the day such as a scheduled  30-minute block in your calendar for employees to drop in.  While others might prefer it informally such as during coffee or in the car to a client’s meeting. 

In team meetings, get team members to regularly trade ideas on how things are going and what can be improved.

Making feedback a daily occurrence encourages people to challenge, share and learn.  It will become part of how the organisation (and team) operates.  It will also make it easier for employees to challenge the leader which is a key component of psychological safety.

7. Provide a decision-making framework

Speed up learning and improve autonomy by creating a framework that employees can use to make individual decisions without having it answered by the hierarchy.  These frameworks can be created for a variety of situations from handling a customer enquiry right through to increasing innovation.

For example, Ritz-Carlton introduces employees to “Mr Biv.”





Variation in work processes

This problem identification and correction method encourages employees to speak up when they see an issue and take responsibility to correct it.  It reduces reworks and wasting time.  Most importantly it empowers employees to know they have the ability to fix any customer issue independently. This is massive for increasing trust and engagement in the workplace.

8. Reward Progress

Employees need to feel like they are accomplishing outcomes and making progress.  In addition to providing regular positive feedback, celebrate wins and milestones.

This even includes praising and appreciating people who have tried something new, but it didn’t turn out as hoped. Help people understand that scrutinising failure for lessons and insights is really important.

Get team members to also appreciate each other verbally in weekly team meetings.  A great exercise I use in meetings is to encourage each person to give a shout out to someone in the team who recently helped them and explain the impact it had.  It gives everyone the warm and fuzzies (and therefore, more likely to help out again).

Helping Employees Find Meaning in Work

When employees feel that teammates or leaders are incompetent or that the company isn’t making an impact, they feel disconnected and dissatisfied. What pulls employees forward is the exciting possibility of making a profound difference in the world with a group of great people.

As the team leader, you are in charge of modelling the right high-performance behaviours.  This also means highlighting that each employee is responsible for seeing the meaning within each task and committing to performing beyond an ordinary level.  Openly discuss with your team members:

  1. What are we working on that is personally important?
  2. What’s the point of the work we are doing?
  3. How do we believe that the work we’re doing matters?
  4. What can you do personally to ensure your work is making an impact for clients (no matter how small or insignificant it seems)?

Periodically stepping back and assessing work and actions ensures people are more present to creating a meaningful experience in their careers and making a bigger impact.  And isn’t that the real purpose of work?

In the next article, we will close this three-part series on building trust in your team by discussing how to increase connection.  

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