Building Sustainable Legacies


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Listening – deepening a capacity

In the spirit of continued authentic communication as initiated in my last blog, I would like to share my reflections about the competency that was in highest demand in my past two months: listening!

 

Let me provide a bit of context. Having stopped my roles at Business School Lausanne at the end of July has brought an abrupt end to the previous demand of my leadership skills. I had chosen to let go of leading already three years prior when we introduced self-organization at the school. Yet I had not been able to drop the reporting function of leadership towards the owners and was in many ways still carrying the full weight of responsibility. It took August and September for me to appreciate how much lighter I started to feel, with human interaction being simplified to the person to person contact, rather than facing the projections and expectations that people would associate with me as a holder of a institutional role. With all of that gone, there was space for something new. 

 

I have discovered listening in many forms: professionally listening was a core competency when facilitating stakeholder meetings or chairing panel sessions, and when conducting interviews of best practice companies. Personally, as I reconnected to my purpose asking myself what would come next, I listened to signs of my body to guide me in deepening my intuition. I am also learning to listening to my emotional, cognitive and physical demands when it comes to freeing myself of my cognitive restrictions when it comes to eating. Behavioral scientists have unveiled to what degree modern times have disconnected many of us from a natural and healthy sense of what our physical needs are when it comes to food and how to listen to these. A multi-layer journey as I am discovering.

 

Listening to myself and to others has been complemented with my more conscious listening to what is around me in the city and in nature. A deeper listening, I am discovering, is slowing me down, grounding me and generating an instant deep connection to the core of what unites us all: the energy field that vibrates and pulsates if only we listen. 

3 x

 active listening

  • It is in that energy field that the solutions lie when I seek a transformative turning point in a multi-stakeholder meeting. Depending on the vibration and pulse, it becomes clear what the group needs to step forward in the direction they seek. 
  • It is also in that energy field that the right question, comment or exercise emerges when coaching a person in their journey. Guiding the coachee to connect to that field allows the person to find her answers herself. 
  • It is in this energy field that I am reconnecting to my deeper purpose and my passion. Be it in nature, be it simply by taking a few slow and deep breaths, be it by feeling my feet on the ground, my mind quiets down and I am operating at the speed of my body and its sensations. 

What are your experiences with listening?

 

For me, my core insight of these past two months of deep listening have let me to ponder the following question: “Why would I not live a life that follows the rhythm of my body, rather than racing through life at the speed of my thoughts always dragging my body behind?” I don’t yet have an answer and for the moment my courage is limited to sharing this question with you. 

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Where are the Super Power Change Makers?

Since reading Katrin’s March blog on the Superpowers of Change Makers, I have been reflecting on leadership and what it looks like in these tense and polarizing times. I have been asking myself the following questions: Who are the heroic leaders for our times? Where are those superpowered change makers who can lift us out of the pessimism and malaise that leave us exhausted and paralyzed? I am eagerly anticipating Katrin’s book for inspiration as I am failing to find many of these superpowered leaders in my world.

Yet when I view this predicament with a different frame, I realize that perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. Instead of speculating on why more leaders don’t demonstrate these change-making skills, perhaps I should be asking myself how I can acquire these capabilities and inspire and enable others to do the same so that we can all make change. Indeed, Katrin pointed out that superpowers are not inborn traits. The “great man” theory of leadership which contends that leaders are born not made has been debunked repeatedly. With effort and courage, every one of us can become a change maker leader.

The quest to develop the superpowers is not for cowards! Most of us are proud of our strengths. Yet Katrin explains how these strengths can limit us when we take them too far. For example, I take pride in my ability to stand up for my convictions and live by my values. Yet taken to the extreme, the strength of my convictions could lead me down the path of close-mindedness and rigidity. To develop superpowers, I must entertain the potential dark side of my strengths. I must be willing and able to refine how I use my strengths to avoid overdoing it to the detriment of my effectiveness.

One of my coaching clients spoke of the “fully baked leader” recently. He seemed to be suggesting that there is an objective and limited set of skills and capabilities that one must acquire to become a leader. Yet in my opinion “fully baked” leaders do not exist. Those who believe that they have developed a complete set of leadership capabilities and have nothing left to learn, will never become superpower- charged change makers. To become effective change makers, we must commit to ongoing growth and development. We must deny that we can ever become “fully baked.”

Some of us who are not in formal positions of authority may be tempted to avoid the difficult path to developing superpowers. Perhaps we tell ourselves that change making is limited to elected officials, CEOs or others who head up organizations and institutions. I urge you to resist this line of thinking. Leadership is far more than filling a position. We cannot afford to fall into a victim mentality. Instead we must acknowledge that leadership does not require a title and refrain from using a lack of one as an excuse for doing nothing.

Leadership does demand bravery and the willingness to take risks. It necessitates our listening to and valuing diverse perspectives. Leadership entails seeking solutions to wicked problems most always through collaboration with others. It obliges us to always seek balance in how we use our strengths. It requires us to continue to seek development and growth. There will always be one more lesson to learn, one more hurdle to overcome and one more challenge to confront with grace and courage.


The Superpowers of a Change Maker

What is it that makes change makers so impactful? And what can we learn from them? How does resilience turn into a strength that when combined with other strengths becomes a true superpower?

As I am adding the finishing touches on my upcoming book that answers these questions in the context of what makes co-creation successful, I would like to share an emerging bit of insight that hopefully adds value to you.

Kathy Miller has expanded the personal resilience story I have shared in January reflecting on my WEF experience with her insights on what makes organizations resilient, pointing out how few companies possess the cultural backbone that enables such resilience. Here I am turning the spotlight on a remarkable group of people that are emerging as the pillars of change in turbulent world: the change makers.

My book features six change makers from all walks of life. They have a few things in common:

  • They feel an increasing need to connect what they do at work with what concerns them in life in general
  • They are triggered and challenged by their environment (students, colleagues, kids, news) to acknowledge that what they do no longer works
  • They have a capacity to reflect and the courage to listen and learn
  • They are able and willing to engage with others, often strangers, to try old things in new ways and to collaborate in entirely new settings and with new approaches

What none of them had, however, were superpowers. And here is were we come in. All of us who care and who resonate with the above. Superpowers can be acquired and developed. Let me explain!

In his book “Building the bridge as you walk on it”, Robert Quinn offers a new way to look at leadership competencies. He suggests moving beyond a static view of preferred traits that we “should” possess, to a dynamic view of so-called competing strength that are both required but which need to be equally developed in order to achieve a higher state in which both strengths lead to a higher state of competency. Too complicated? Take the example of two strengths we are all familiar with:

  • Being tough and providing structure and limits
  • Caring about the other and being lenient and forgiving

Both of these are undoubtedly strengths, yet one without the other will not lead to an ideal outcome. Quinn argues that we need both of them and calls for a higher state of “tough love”. Makes sense, right! You got the concept that I use to define superpowers!

A superpower for me is when a strength polarity pair is overcome and super strength, or superpower, emerges!

In my research that has led to the sequel of the Collaboratory book, we have identified the following three superpowers of individual change makers in co-creation processes (see also Figure 1):

  • Appreciative curiosity results from being constructive and positive, overcoming self-righteous judgment.
  • Building bridges happens when an inclusive influencer stops being opinionated or unprincipled.
  • Empathic support comes from being open and caring, resisting the temptation to be distant and withdraw.

Figure 1: Extract of the Book “Secrets, Solutions and Superpowers of Co-creation”
due for publication in September 2018 by Routledge Publishing
From Strengths to Superpowers

 

From Strengths to Superpowers

We have developed the strengths by having identified the reasons why co-creation efforts among stakeholders fails most often. We have labelled these causes “limitations” and found out that these limitations are not failures or weaknesses, but rather strengths that have turned into a negative expression due to insisting too much. Each strength therefore has a negative expression when over-stretched (see Figure 2). This is something that you may have experienced when having either experienced somebody being too tough or somebody being too caring.

Figure 2: Extract of the Book “Secrets, Solutions and Superpowers of Co-creation”
due for publication in September 2018 by Routledge Publishing
From Limitations to Strengths

 

From Limitations to Strengths

The journey from limitations to strength and from strengths to superpowers is the development journey of the heroes of our times: the change makers. I am sure that you have used your inherent strengths in various combinations with other strengths to develop your very own personal superpowers. Here I invite you to take a look at the strengths we have identified in our research in Figure 2 and to ask yourself: where am I on the scale of these strengths and their respective limitations? Which limitation have I noticed in myself when I overstretch a strength and how can this overview help me return to my powerful expression of the strength again?

The book highlights two additional levels of superpowers that come into play when we co-create: the superpowers of a stakeholder group and the superpower of facilitating the space for solving shared issue. You will find out more about these in the book which is expected in a bookstore near you in September this year.

 

Picture credit: https://www.dumblittleman.com/7-superpowers-you-act-like-you-have-but/

References:

Robert Quinn (2004): Building the bridge as you walk on it. Jossey-Bass.

Katrin Muff (2013): The Collaboratory – A co-creative stakeholder process for solving complex problems. Greenleaf Publications.


Finding our space in a new place

Building personal resilience – an applied example

CEOs and HR Directors have consistently rated adaptability, authenticity and values as top leadership qualities for people at any level of an organization. These are also key ingredients for resilience. I define resilience as the capacity to respond to external pressure by adapting and recovering quickly and hence finding a new equilibrium.

Typically, we look at resilience in interaction with others in an organizational setting. I discovered last week, that I can apply these three ideas also in a challenging networking environment. As a way to launch our transatlantic blog into a new year, I wanted to dedicate this first blog to how we can build personal resilience while being in new challenging situations. I will demonstrate this with my personal experience and reflection from my first participation at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos last week.

Arriving in Davos for the World Economic Forum was hard. Hard for different reasons than I had anticipated – it had been raining and the slush on the street made it a real challenge to make it to the AirB&B my colleague had organized for us. And yet, all this struggle was nothing compared to the difficulty we had securing accommodation for the event! Unimaginable! My colleague Julia Christensen Hughes, Dean of the College of Business & Economics at the University of Guelph , persisted through all obstacles and miraculously found for our Female Deans Trio a fabulous apartment.

Figuring out networking in an event that is strictly structured around privileged access to select events was another eye-opener. The weather challenge which drowned the arrival in unbelievable masses of snow and rain meant that nothing worked as planned. Being simply in the moment and helping fellow attendees out, together finding registration and queuing for badges ended up being the best way to connect. The human element of together making it in a challenging moment created a connection far more important than a typical cocktail party ever would. I may even have attracted a new MBA student to BSL as a result of one such incident.

Nesting in and finding spaces that feel comfortable was a big thing for me too. Given such unfriendly weather conditions outside made it a necessity to find warm and dry spots. Ideally with a seating option and a coffee machine nearby. So finding comfort in the welcoming Female Quotient equity lounge, felt perfect despite my initial resistance to join a “feminine” movement. Admitting that, listening deeper to my intuition and overriding superficial mental judgement, was important. The previous night, I had ignored such intuition and in an attempt to do some networking and meet up with friends, I ended up roaming the Promenade getting wet feet in the slush and maybe a cold along the way – without ever catching up with my friends. I did have the intuition that I should have stayed in the apartment and caught an early night, but failed to listen.

So what am I saying here? I find that when we reach out into the world as change makers, we end up in new, unfamiliar spaces where we need to orient ourselves and find out how we can be effective in such a space. Being effective, I suggest here with my brief insight into my brief #WEF2018 Davos experience, involves these three things:

  • Adaptability: Arriving well and creating a space of comfort either by being with people or having accessories that create comfort (I always bring a candle when I travel)
  • Authenticity: Being in the present moment and embracing the encounter that presents itself wholeheartedly without trying to be elsewhere – trust serendipity!
  • Values: Listen to your intuition and go or stay where you feel well rather than where a program suggests you should or could be. Find your inner rhythm and stick with it as you dance with what is happening around and allow that duality with grace and joy!

And these three insights that I have gained in Davos link nicely back to what CEOs suggest are the backbone of resilience: adaptability, authenticity and values. I hope you find this reflection insightful in your own journey as a change maker both within your organization, and as you shape your own journey across new ground and landscapes!

 


Corporate Culture in 2017

As I write this blog, year 2017 is winding down. Throughout the year my blogging partner, Katrin Muff, and I have commented frequently on corporate culture. The media seems to share our interest in this subject. Indeed, references to corporate culture have shown up on the front pages of many reputable newspapers and magazines this past year. I did a cursory web search to gather up a few of these stories.

I don’t claim to have done a scientific study of how often and in what context the media mentioned corporate culture.  Nevertheless, many articles popped up when I entered the search term “corporate culture 2017”. Most pertained to companies’ significant problems attributed to toxic corporate cultures. Of course, the media often showcases the bad news stories. Still, the volume of content was significant enough to warrant my attention.

The Wells Fargo Bank fraud hit the headlines at the end of 2016 and kicked off 2017 with bad news for the company. Several newspapers including the Washington Post and the New York Times reported that Wells Fargo employees had opened millions of phony accounts without their clients’ consent. The articles attributed the malfeasance to a company culture where pressure to meet unrealistic sales goals undermined corporate ethics.

Likewise ride-sharing company Uber made the news repeatedly throughout the year. Referring to the egregious sexist culture, the Washington Post had this to say:

“Corporate culture has long been the sort of squishy management consultant term that’s hard to define, even harder to change, and the recipient of lots of lip service yet little action by chief executives. But however amorphous the phrase may be, its importance was stamped into stark relief this week after a former female Uber engineer made allegations about its sexist, chaotic and aggressive culture.” [1]

United Airlines landed in hot water in April of 2017 when a passenger was forcibly dragged off a plane. The articles attributed the incident to a culture where behavior is scripted and employees have little if any latitude to make decisions.[2]

The last few months of the year brought countless stories of cultures where women were treated as prey. For example, in November of 2017, Fox News set up a Workplace Culture Panel following reports of widespread sexual harassment throughout the company.[3]  And as recently as December, the New York Times published an article on sexual harassment at two Ford Motor plants in Chicago. The headline read as follows: “How Tough is it to Change a Culture of Harassment?  Ask the Women of Ford.” [4]

While I could devote the entire blog to recounting similar stories, I believe that the examples I have offered are sufficient to make the point. Culture counts. No matter how amorphous the concept may seem, those of us who lead companies ignore our organizations’ cultures at our own risk. Consider the degree to which toxic cultures impacted companies and the people in them in 2017. Let us each resolve to assess and address our own organizational cultures in 2018.

Take the first step by looking at your current culture. Ask yourselves questions such as the following:

  • What is the purpose of our company and what do we stand for?
  • How do our corporate values influence our decisions and behaviors?
  • What are the stories that we tell each other about our organization?
  • Who are our admired heroes?
  • Who makes the rules for the organization?
  • What do we reward and what do we punish?
  • How often do we have conversations that consider diverse opinions?
  • To what degree do we value the contributions of everyone in the company?
  • What do we do to show respect for all?
  • How do we ensure that everyone’s focus is on serving our customers?

In addition to answering these questions ourselves, we should pose them to others. In my 30+ years of consulting, I have found that leaders are predictably astonished by how employees’ perceptions of the organization diverge from their own. While some are tempted to explain away the differences, the best leaders value the input. They dig deeper to understand and address the discrepancies.

Leaders create the conditions within which a culture emerges. However, they may not fully understand the possible consequences of the systems that they put in place. Likewise, they may be shielded from what occurs within the organization day to day. Asking the right questions and listening openly to the answers can provide them with the needed data for making appropriate changes to improve the organizational culture.

As I anticipate 2018, I wonder what catastrophes might be prevented in the new year if leaders of every company committed to taking  a close look at their own organizational cultures. Chances are most would find a mix of strengths to reinforce and weaknesses to address. And in some cases, they may find signs of the toxicity that, if not eradicated, could create serious consequences for their people and their companies. Let us all resolve to become proactive this new year in stamping out the unhealthy parts of our cultures while fortifying the strengths.

 

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2017/02/24/why-a-toxic-workplace-is-now-a-much-bigger-liability-for-companies/?utm_term=.c854fdb575d8

[2] http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-toxic-united-wells-20170411-story.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/20/business/media/fox-news-sexual-harassment.html

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/19/us/ford-chicago-sexual-harassment.html

 

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.


How CEOs can inspire personal change

Imagine you had 30 minutes with 4 renowned CEOs in front of several hundred business practitioners and you wanted to use the time to create change in the audience. What would you do? I recently had the opportunity and here is what happened!

At the Swiss Green Economy Symposium, the largest event among sustainability enthusiasts in the German speaking part of Switzerland, I could facilitate a CEO panel. I had about six months to prepare which was necessary given the busy agenda of the CEOs. I contacted more than a dozen to have a confirmed gender balanced panel of 4 CEOs. One of the female CEOs had confirmed early and said she would participate with one condition: that there would be at least as many women on the panel as men. What a great condition! Imagine how things would shift if all women (and men) would demand this!

I wanted to create a panel that would serve as a trigger for change in the audience rather than a the usual story-telling inspiration sharing success stories of their organizations. Would I be able to convince the CEOs to give up the opportunity to position their company in front of an attractive audience in service of creating a space where change could happen in the audience? Yes, imagine that. CEOs were open to that idea, once I shared my idea with them and had talked them through the concept. Wonderful!

Figure 1: The Circle Model connecting the inner world of personal development with the outer world of organizational development as a transformative journey towards a world worth living in (Katrin Muff, 2016)

We split the 30 minutes in three parts. After a short introduction where I framed the conversation with a simple concept (see figure 1), we started the first part. Each CEO shared a personal story illustrating the question: “which challenges have influenced them personally and how have these shaped the way you are leading your organization?” As the audience collectively leaned forward, topics such as gender stereotypes, work-place injustice, product waste and power abuse were discussed with courage and vulnerability. I invited the packed auditorium to take moment and to individually reflect on what has shaped them most in your past and how this influences their priorities at work. Both in terms of what they currently do and what they wish you were doing. People came to me afterwards and said they have never experienced a room so quiet and so focused. The magic was starting.

In a second round, we had selected only two of the four CEOs share examples of what issues were challenging their organization in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world and what long-term business opportunities were emerging concerning the Sustainable Development Goals? To grant time to the audience, the generosity of the other CEOs to stand back was really touching. We were one and we had one common objective! I invited the audience to turn to their neighbor and to discuss what options their saw to implement change for their organizations to embed the SDGs into their strategy. On a background slide, I shared a support website for those needing help. The room exploded. Everybody talked and shared and exchanged. We sat in our chairs with our jaws wide open. What an energy in the room. And how were we going to get them back to listening to us? When the time was up, the CEOs and I spontaneously stood up together and loudly applauded the audience. They look up and stared at us in surprise. They stopped talking and we could continue.

In the last round, all CEOs shared which issue concerned them most in our society and where they saw opportunities to connect these to future business activities? Their stories addressed the top burning societal issues of Switzerland as addressed by the Gapframe: CO2 overuse, equal opportunity, sustainable consumption, social integration and clean energy. I invited the audience to take a moment and choose one action that they could implement in the next 3 days to close the gap of where we are today vs. where they thought we should be in an area important for them. I offered an online tool to share these actions, if anybody felt like it.

I wish we had more time at the end, the final reflection was a minute shorter than I had hoped but our 30 minutes were up. Nonetheless, I was happily surprised when I discovered the personal commitments coming in. Figure 2 provides an overview of them grouped into some categories I hope are helpful in reviewing.

Role modelling

  • I commit to dedicate my working time to a project that serves 100% to make our living more sustainable
  • Lead a topic coming out of SGES 2017
  • I will define my personal SDG‘s to be achieved by the end of 2018
  • Break the barriers, create sense of urgency and implement the much needed change
  • Prepare presentation about the legal implications of a meat tax as a ghg heavy good

Encouraging others for action

  • Communicate knowledge to peers
  • As corny as it may sound: foremost change minds
  • I commit to also encourage others to live more sustainably
  • Talk with my Patents about their travelling
  • Poll others on these questions
  • Roll out the sdgxchange in a world wide level
  • Make my sons understand that they also have a big responsibility for Equal Opportunity and that they must contribute to achieving it

Community building

  • Organize a non-hierarchical roundtable for a common sustainable mindset within my organization and outside
  • Partner to strengthen the capability to act
  • Launch SDSN Switzerland on 2 Nov, the network that mobilizes the Swiss research & innovation community for the SDGs
  • Keep engaging people for a sustainable future
  • I’ll ask my fellow Entrepreneurs how they care about Sustainability! And I’ll publish it later on!
  • Organize the startups around me in a matrix to share sustainability progress

More time for the soul

  • Slow down. I will lower my expectations towards myself and spend more time speaking with my employees
  • I will observe better!

Aligning corporate sustainability goals with national priority issues

  • Identify lacks in our sustainability goals by comparing them with the topic of gapframe.org
  • Build our new 150kW PV project in Bern – Solarify
  • Verity the strategic goals of my organization against the Agenda2030 for Sustainable Development and adapt if needed
  • I will create a personal project on how we can introduce GTDs with local partners and stakeholders in our projects worldwide
  • Make sure that we also talk about social innovations.
  • Apply the standard for sustainable construction (SNBS) in the area of buildings

Social integration action

  • Partner up to reach higher employee diversity (age, gender, education, etc.)
  • I would like to support employees who lost their jobs with improving their skill-set and find a new opportunity or career path.
  • Transparency and equality

Reducing the CO2 consumption (Switzerland’s no 1 sustainability issue)

  • Only travel by train to destinations in Europe (always!)
  • Rain or shine, I’ll bike to work.
  • I commit to eating only very little meat and buy organic food, to fly as little as possible and compensate my flights
  • Compensate my flight
  • No more elevator – taking the steps, staying fit and saving energy
  • Exchange my diesel into an electric car
  • Conscious Consuming
  • Cook local
  • Eating less meat
  • Renovate our old Windows in order to create more insolation
  • Commit to an organic “vegetable-abo” in order to support sustainable and local agriculture.
  • Before I buy something, to ask: what is the harm when I buy this?

Figure 2: List of shared personal commitments as a result of a 30 minute transformative CEO panel

I don’t think I have ever spent so much time preparing for a 30 minute intervention. I think I spent 30 hours, or 60 times the intervention time, in preparation. I needed not only prepare the CEOs, I also needed to get the organizer onboard. Among the CEOs, we had spent two months carefully scripting each statement of each person so that we could create an overall story that would hopefully allow a change in the audience. This resulted in a 3500 word document that everybody had approved, outlining minute by minute who would say what. If you attempt something similar, ensure you have plenty of lead-time available! It is worth it though!

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs


Why We Work

Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Studs Terkel

How much of your life do you spend at work?  For many of us the answer is shocking.  Working adults residing in the United States spend a third of their time at work, according to recent estimates.  Many of us spend more time at work than in any other endeavor including time with our families and friends. I am not going to debate whether this is the right way to live. However, since many of us will work a large proportion of our adult years, we might reflect on what work means to us.  Are we working only for a paycheck or for something more?

Through my own conversations with working people, I have found that most want to work for companies with a distinct purpose and clear values.  Research that I referenced in my August blog, confirmed that all generations, not just millennials, want to find purpose in their work.

Last month Katrin Muff discussed the importance of connecting our values with our life purpose as it relates to the world outside of ourselves.  Certainly, the workplace is part of that outer world. While our jobs may not suffice to define our total life- purpose, our work and/or our profession are part of our identity.  For example, reflect on how you describe yourself to others.  Chances are if you are a working adult, you include a reference to your profession or what you do for a living.

Since we tend to identify with our work, it is not surprising that most of us want it to be meaningful.

Evidence collected over decades shows a relationship between meaningful work, motivation, engagement and a sense of well-being.  While each of us may have our own definitions of what makes a job meaningful, some common factors are:

  • Person-organization fit
  • Positive and reinforcing personal relationships
  • Opportunities to align with or further one’s values
  • Fulfillment of a social or moral purpose, or broader reason for being. [1]

Year after year we hear that a very large percentage of working adults across the world do not love their jobs and are not engaged with their companies or their work. This disengagement from our work often has a negative impact on our health and well-being.

When we view our work as meaningful, we are also more likely to be motivated to do it well.  In 2015, Alison Alexander conducted research as part of her master’s studies at Northwestern University on how organizations are making work meaningful.  She found a direct connection between the presence of meaning in life and making meaning through work.  She also discovered that organizations with a strong purpose, clear values and commitments to social responsibility provide employees with ways to find meaning through their work.  She concluded that when corporations are committed to serving society, employees can “live their values through their work.”

Last month Katrin Muff argued that each of us must know who we truly are if we are to live an authentic life. I agree, and I believe that that this is also the first step in finding meaningful work or conversely, making work meaningful.  We must be keenly aware of our own values and what we perceive to be our purpose in life before we can expect work to be meaningful. Nancy Collamer, a contributing author to Forbes Magazine, suggests asking yourself questions such as “what five words best describe you”, and “what would you do if you couldn’t fail”.  Regardless of your method of reflection, you must know who you are before finding meaning in your work.

For job seekers, Alexander recommends that you “look under the hood” of the companies you are considering. Determine the degree to which their commitment to social responsibility is embedded throughout the company or isolated to a small group of people in a corporate social responsibility function. Reflect on whether the principles that the companies demonstrate through their words and actions are aligned with your values.  Pursue companies that are committed to the greater good of society.  Ideally, they will have embedded this commitment into all aspects of the company, and every employee will understand the role that they play in contributing to the greater good.

Even if you plan to stay in your current job, most likely you can find ways to make the work more meaningful.  For example, you might seek clarity from your manager about the significance and purpose of your work.  Or if your specific job tasks aren’t fulfilling, you might find others in your workplace who share your interests and values. Perhaps a group of like-minded people can design and carry out on your own time, projects that are fulfilling and contribute to the broader society.  If your company has a Corporate Social Responsibility or Sustainability Department, you might contact them to find out how you can get involved, perhaps as a volunteer.  And if all else fails, start looking for a new job with a purpose-driven company aligned with your own values.

I realize that work will not always be meaningful no matter what we do.  However, despite the role that work plays in our lives, very few of us find all our life-meaning from our jobs or our professions.   In fact it is a bad idea to try to put all our eggs in our professional or work basket. No matter how much meaning we derive from work, we should all seek and find meaning in other parts of our lives as well. We can find meaning from family, spirituality, personal growth, education, community.  The list is very long.  I believe that a sense of well-being, if not happiness, comes from our deepest sense of purpose and our constant pursuit of meaning every day throughout our entire existence.

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”  Viktor E. Frankl

[1] Cardador, T.M.& Rupp, D.E. (2011) “Organizational Culture, Multiple Needs, and the Meaningfulness of Work,” The Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate, Chapter 10.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.