Wednesday, February 20, 2013


You may have heard the fiction about a nurse reporting on the wishes of dying patients, that many people regretted that they spent too much time on work but too little on family and friends.  It is the underlying thought of work-life balance: Don't work too hard and play more.  This is not the true picture.  Many people did find joy and satisfaction in their work, and regretted not having worked sufficiently hard.  Many of them are in the creative fields such as music, arts, literature and science.  Managers are more likely not finding satisfaction in work, perhaps of the supportive role they play.  The main difference between these behaviour could be the meaning of work to them.  Mckinsey Quarterly recently reported on the Meaning Quotient of Work MQ which may shed some light.

Many researches have been conducted on why some employees could perform better than others.  This field of management started in the last two hundred years targeting on division of labour, specialization, group dynamics, motivation, and behavioural approaches.  The latest discovery is the meaning of work to the employees.  The more they could find meaning to their work, the better performance could be achieved.

In surveying the essential elements which are required for good performance, scientists found many of them which fell into three categories.  The first set of elements includes role clarity, understanding of objectives, access to knowledge and resources.  These are the rational elements and are conveniently know as Intellectual Quotient IQ.  When the IQ of an environment is low, the energy of the employees is misdirected and conflicting.

Another set of elements includes factors related to the quality of interactions among employees.  They are the baseline of trust and respect, constructive conflict, a sense of humour, a feeling of comradeship and the ability to collaborate effectively.  These create an emotionally safe environment to pursue goals.  This is termed the Emotional Quotient EQ.  When the EQ of the environment is low, employee energy dissipates in the form of office politics, ego management and passive-aggressive avoidance of tough issues.

While IQ and EQ are essential for the creation of conditions for peak performance, they are far from sufficient.  The third set of elements is described as involving high stakes, excitement, challenge, something that the individual feels matter, will make a difference, and hasn't been done before.  This set of elements is termed the Meaning Quotient MQ of work.  When the MQ of an environment is low, employees put less energy into their work and see it as "just a job" that gives them nothing more than a salary.

Researchers understood the enormous loss of opportunity cost when meaning is missing in the workplace.  Executives being surveyed noticed a difference of five times between peak performance and average performance in a high IQ, high EQ and high MQ environment.  It is estimated that a modest increase of twenty percent in productivity could be achieved if MQ could be maintained.  Moreover, when asked about the bottlenecks to peak performance in their organizations, more than 90% of executives chose MQ-related issues.  IQ tool kit is readily observable and is well taught in business schools; EQ tool kit is relatively well understood owing to the popularization of the concept in the 90s.  But the MQ tool kit is different and is still lacking.

From recent researches, a number of specific and practical tools that leaders use are identified.  They are communication, quality feedback, job flexibility and empowerment.  McKinsey recommends a few practical and actionable techniques.  Among them, three examples are found to be useful and easily adoptable.

Strategy No. 1: Tell five stories at once.
Typically, organizational leaders tell two types of stories to inspire their teams.  The first is the Turnaround story of dramatical change in order to survive.  The second is the From Good to Great story to become the leader of the industry.  The problem with both stories is that they only centre on the company.  They may inspire some but not all employees.  There are four other sources which could give individuals a sense of meaning and a sense of ability to have an impact on the society, the customer, the working team and themselves.  Stories about making a better society and building a better community; making the life of customers easier by providing superior service; a caring environment and sense of beloging in a team and the opportunity for personal development and empowerment.

Surveys of thousands of employees show that the split of those inspired by the stories is roughly equal.  It appears that these five sources are a universal human phenomenon.  The implication for leaders seeking to create high-MQ environments is that a turnaround or a good-to-great story will strike a motivational chord with only 20 percent of the workforce. The same goes for a change the world vision or appeals to individuals on a personal level. The way to unleash MQ-related organizational energy is to tell all five stories at once.

Strategy No. 2: Let employees write their own lottery ticket.
A truth about human nature: When we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome.  People are more committed when they could write their own lottery ticket.  Although it may not be possible to let all employees decide their own direction, it can be done by augmenting the story telling with asking about the story.  Some companies ask their employees on how to make a difference, what improvement idea they have, when did they last get coaching from the boss, and who is the enemy.  The motivational effect of this approach has been noted to increase the meaning of work.

Strategy No. 3: Use small, unexpected rewards to motivate.
When business objectives are linked to compensation, the motivation to drive for results is rarely enhanced meaningfully.  Most compensation plans emphasize financial metrics whose results depend on many variables which are beyond the control of individuals.  Leaders of organizations that could instill meaning use other powerful methods.  Some companies gave all employees a bottle of champagne for Christmas, with a card thanking them on the participation in a project.  A CEO sent the spouses of the team members handwritten thank-you letters.  Some managers might dismiss these as token gestures.  But as a leader put it: Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise.  They are free and worth a fortune.

Of the three Qs that would likely generate good performance, business leaders frequently said that MQ is the hardest to get right.  Given the enormous benefits for injecting meaning into people's work lives, taking the time to implement strategies of those mentioned above is among the most important investments a leader can make.

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