This is not a piece about “unknown unknowns.”

No, it’s a piece about something that most of us in any position of authority secretly fear we’re doing.

Actually, there are two groups of senior people who probably do n’t secretly fear they’re doing this:  Those who are so consummately superb at what they do that they know they’re not at risk, and those who are so unself-aware and intrinsically godawful as managers that the thought would never cross their minds.

Now then, “it” is “killing meaning at work,” or snuffing out “the ongoing engagement and everyday progress of the people in the trenches of your organization,” as McKinsey puts it.

How important is it to avoid snuffing out that engagement?  Far more than you’d think. The same McKinsey authors surveyed nearly 700 managers at all levels, from dozens of companies and from industries around the world, asking them to rank the importance of five employee motivators:

  • incentives
  • recognition
  • clear goals
  • interpersonal support, and
  • progress in the work.

Only 8% chose the last option–as they note, a random selection would have given it 20% of votes.

Why is “progress in work” so i mportant?  The more positive people’s inner work lives, the more creative, productive, committed, and collegial they are in their jobs.  And the one indispensable prerequisite to a postiive inner work life is that people feel their work is meaningful.  Now, this is easy to pay lip service to, but it turns out to be much harder to do in practice.

The authors dug into a trove of daily electronic diaries they had gathered from dozens of professionals working at seven North American companies–12,000 diary entries in all, of which nearly 900 reflected an interaction with upper or top-level managers.  And with shocking consistency across  the different organizations, they found senior managers falling into four traps.

Signaling mediocrity

You would never do this on purpose, right?!  Isn’t your firm exclusively and proudly all about excellence and high purpose?  Of course it is.  But what if you’re unintentionally signaling the opposite?  People are acutely attuned to hypocrisy and actions speak volumes over words.

They use the example of a consumer products company singing the mantra of “innovation,” promising  teams autonomy and espousing a cross-functional and entrepreneurial approach to business.  But in reality senior management was so firmly focused on cost reduction that new product development was strangled and product engineers began to feel they were doing mediocre work for a mediocre company–whereas before they had had “a sense of fierce pride.”   Some of the very best, predictably, departed.

Consider these words from one researcher there:

A proposal for liquid/medical filtration using our new technology was tabled for the second time by the Gate 1 committee (five directors that screen new ideas). Although we had plenty of info for this stage of the game, the committee is uncomfortable with the risk and liability. The team, and myself, are frustrated about hurdles that we don’t know how to answer.

This company’s leaders also inadvertently signaled that, despite their rhetoric about being innovative and cutting edge, they were really more comfortable being ordinary.

Sound familiar?  The committee was “uncomfortable with risk and liability,” which are concerns it’s virtually impossible to address since they’re free-floating, undefined, and open-ended.

Strategic “attention deficit disorder”

While it’s great to pay attention to the macroeconomic environment, the competitive environment, and young upstart threats, you  need to be able to stand back, take a considered view, and articulate (and follow through on) a consistent, coherent, focused strategic outlook.  Here’s what it can look like from the inside if you’re incapable of this:

A quarterly product review was held with members of the [top team] and the general manager and president. Primary outcome from the meeting was a change in direction away from spray jet mops to revitalization of existing window squeegees. Four priorities were defined for product development, none of which were identified as priorities at our last quarterly update. The needle still points north, but we’ve turned the compass again.

Are you “turning the compass” all the time while claiming that, “well, the needle still points north”? Precisely no one will be fooled.

Keystone Kops

The fictional Keystone Kops were silent film characters so famously maladroit that they grossly fumbled case after case, ran around madly in pointless circles, and spent far more energy bopping each other than pursuing anyone else; today they’re a symbol of misdirection and lack of coordination.  In corporate land, the analog is senior managers who are oblivious to the organization under them churning in inconsistent and self-defeating ways.  Without coordinated action–worse, with departments or groups at odds with each other–regress, not progress, will be the order of the day.

Misbegotten “BHAGs”

In a famous 1996 Harvard Business Review article (James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, “Building your company’s vision,” Harvard Business Review, September/October 1996, Volume 74, Number 5, pp. 65-77),  the self-identified management guru Jim Collins introduced the notion that corporations should pursue “big, hairy, audacious goals.”

Maybe if you’re Google you can get away with something grandiose (“organizing the world’s information”), but let’s face facts, folks: For most organizations it’s a snare and a delusion, which breeds cynicism and resignation instead of drive and ambition.   Here’s an example (italics original, bold emphasis supplied):

A chemicals firm set a BHAG that all projects had to be innovative blockbusters that would yield a minimum of $100 million in revenue annually, within five years of a project’s initiation. This goal did not infuse the work with meaning, because it had little to do with the day-to-day activities of people in the organization. It did not articulate milestones toward the goal; it did not provide for a range of experiments and outcomes to meet it; worst of all, it did not connect with anything the employees valued. Most of them wanted to provide something of value to their customers; an aggressive revenue target told them only about the value to the organization, not to the customer. Far from what Collins and Porras intended, this misbegotten BHAG was helping to destroy the employees’ sense of purpose.

Beware articulating a “BHAG” that only has meaning to the executive suite.  (This is probably a symbolic cousin to the famous curse of having your CEO appear on the cover of Forbes or Fortune; woe betide the organization going forward.)

This may indeed serve as our coda to the varieties of going astray by destroying morale:  Keep sight of the front line worker’s perspective. Stay in touch with reality on the ground.  Consider a (bad) example from outside the corporate or law land context: To what do many political observers ascribe the beginning President Obama’s long slide in the polls from gilded pre-Inaugural demigod to ineffective partisan scrambler?  To his early focus on his own chosen goal of healthcare reform, oblivious to the plummeting economy and the parlous job market. You can agree or disagree with Obama’s agenda and admire or decry his priorities, but there’s no question he lost sight of what most of America cared about and certainly appeared more tuned in to the inside-the-Beltway and think tank crowd.

Should you then despair of articulating a higher purpose? Far from it.  But if you do–and I hope you do–do not neglect the essential next step, which is to connect the vision to what people on the front lines are doing every day.

  • State the vision
  • Explain clearly and concisely
    • why it matters
    • why it’s best for the firm
    • what’s in it for everyone
    • and why it’s something your firm and your partners are uniquely capable of achieving
  • Repeat ##1 & 2
  • Support the vision with an organizational form, a compensation structure, and financial reporting and personal review structures that all point towards achieving the vision
  • Be consistent in word and deed
  • Repeat ##1 & 2
  • Repeat #4
  • etc.

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