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The Meaning of 2012

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Impressive headline! I thought about attempting “the meaning of life” as a final article for the year, but I thought it might be more realistic to just try to understand things a year at a time ..

“Meaning” or purpose can sound a bit lofty and abstract but in fact they’re central to our lives and work, underpinning very practical everyday experiences like engagement, motivation, satisfaction, creativity, health and wellbeing. Numerous researchers and writers have highlighted the role of meaning or purpose in our professional lives.

Martin Seligman (the original positive psychology guy) gave us the PERMA framework (Positive emotion, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, Achievement) to describe the elements of a “flourishing” life.

Dan Pink (watch his TED talk) explains the three key workplace motivators of Autonomy, Meaning and Purpose based on a 2010 MIT study and other workplace research.

Simon Sinek , a RAND corporation researcher, educator and author of Start with Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action, explains that while most organisations talk about “what” they do and “how” they do it, outstanding organisations focus on the “why” at the centre – because the “why” appeals to our deeply influential emotional, ”gut” responses and drives.

Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School has researched how, when it comes to creativity, people can be motivated by money – but it’s only a secondary motivator; there needs to be something more intrinsic. And that something is passion – the “care factor” if you like – “a set of positive perceptions about the work that you're doing and the place where you're working. Is it a place that does important, good things? … Am I valued here? Am I making a real contribution here?”

At one level this is “common sense” (as so many uncommon things are) because we can readily identify with the principles. It’s putting the principles into practice that is the challenge. Sometimes it’s just a matter of choosing to think about and look at things a bit differently – to step outside the typical frames of reference that we bring to our work. That includes choosing not to take for granted the personal qualities and discretionary effort you apply as a result of your own values and principles – the meaning and purpose with which you choose to imbue your work each day.

Here are some suggestions for identifying and enhancing meaning and purpose at work for yourself:

Celebrate ”small wins”. Often we look for meaning in the "big things", and yet we frequently experience and express them in apparently mundane, everyday activities. Acknowledging that someone was helped by your efforts, was reassured by your manner, or improved their understanding of something is an everyday way of reinforcing the positive impact of your efforts.

Look for ways to express your values and strengths in your actions. For example, if “harmony” or “collaboration” are strong drivers for you, intentionally contribute behaviours and words that express those things – and acknowledge others who do so. If your drivers are "results" or "plans" or "creativity", consciously contribute in those ways.

Plan for and take note of progress. We’re often working on long-term projects and can easily feel like pretty small cogs in the process. Progress, even apparently small, is encouraging and reminds us that what we’re doing is making a difference – especially when we can link that progress with the way in which we made it happen or contributed to it. And you're a step closer even if you've worked out the last step was a wrong one!

Plant seeds for the future. Not everything we do today has obvious purpose or meaning in the moment. But every action has potential to shape the future – for ourselves and others. So sometimes we can create greater meaning in even the smallest actions or decisions by seeing them as seeds for the future.

Here, then, are some ideas about how we can also identify and enhance meaning for others – whether they report to us, we report to them or they are our peers:

Share stories about how what team members do makes a difference. Dan Pink reports on a study of a call centre’s employees who read stories from the beneficiaries of their fundraising organization. This communicated “task significance”. These employees generated twice the pledges and donations of a control group and a group who read stories about the personal benefits (salary, etc.) of their jobs.

Focus on the positive difference it makes. Focusing on improving productivity by 5% or reducing expenditure by 15% is far less motivating than focusing on how a job contributes to improving lives or communities, how it improves wellbeing, maintains security, or protects health. Remember: “your focus determines your reality”, so what we focus on in our conversations, reports and evaluations becomes the reality that motivates or demotivates.

Express appreciation. Look for and acknowledge how people’s strengths and personal qualities positively influence how they contribute. People are often recruited because of that “something special” they bring to a role... and then find that their "specialness" is quickly taken for granted. Sometimes it helps to think about the gap that would exist if a colleague left - taking their strengths and personal qualities with them. (And it’s amazing how many positives emerge when we intentionally look for the good things people do – see the August 2012 newsletter for more on this.) Everyone needs to feel that they matter and that what they do is valued. And each of us can reinforce those things.

As the year nears an end it’s not a bad idea to take some time to reflect on “the meaning of 2012” for you: the inspiring, encouraging and satisfying actions, projects, conversations, connections and contributions large or small that you and your team engaged in across the year. It may require some reframing of your thinking, it may feel strange to think about your work beyond measures like deadlines, profits and hours. But it will probably also provide some interesting and encouraging reminders of the numerous ways in which you made a meaningful difference across the last 12 months – from small wins to seeds planted for the future.

Part of that practical reflection on 2012 should also be to acknowledge the ways in which those around you have made a positive difference in what they’ve done, how they’ve done it and why it matters. It’s amazing how expressing specific appreciation energises us individually and collectively.

“Authentically appreciating others will make you feel better about yourself,” says Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project www.theenergyproject.com. “And it will also increase the likelihood they’ll invest more in their work, and in you.” Because appreciation confirms that what we’re doing is making a difference and does have meaning.

Aubrey Warren Situational Leadership® Australia

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