Building Meaning in Organizations

March 12, 2013

By: Chris White

Originally posted on Lead Positively

In an earlier post, I introduced Marty Seligman’s PERMA model of “Flourishing” for people. Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. Let’s talk a little bit about Meaning.

Meaning can come in many forms. What is meaningful to one person may not be to another. Helping people find and connect to meaning in their work is one of the most important things a leader can do. There are some ways to do this systematically, bake it into the fabric of the organization.

Wharton Professor (and Michigan PhD) Adam Grant has done a lot of research on Prosocial Motivation. In this video, Adam talks about the performance uptick that comes when people can connect their work – even often unexciting work – to the beneficiaries of it.

Here is an example that is very close to home: another way that organizations build meaning is through aligning around its mission statement. Last month, Dean Alison-Davis Blake announced the new strategic direction for the Ross School of Business: ”We develop leaders who make a positive difference in the world.” When Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods came to visit Ross recently, he shared his support for this clarity and sense of higher purpose.

Having been at the Ross School for almost four years now, I think the new mission statement is actually right on the button. In my opinion, it is a clear, concise reflection of our culture and values when we are at our best,rather than a completely new mission. As Managing Director of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship, it is with great pride and gratitude that I show up to work each day. Pride that my Center and School is trying to make a positive difference in the world. Gratitude that I have the chance to do so, and work with some amazing people along the way.

Of course, not everyone is 100% on board yet. I wouldn’t expect them to be. Among any group of thousands of world class minds, and confident leaders, there would always be alternative points of view. It is a very bold step for a major, mainstream business school to take a stand that the role of business is more than making money, that it is about making a difference too. For some, there are philosophical differences. Some people do indeed still subscribe to Milton Friedman’s pithy quote that “the only social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”. For some others, there is a fear that making this kind of bold statement will make us a peripheral, niche school for do-gooders, tree-huggers or whatever other term you would like to apply to those who care about more than just profit-making.

Neither of these are reasons to choose not to announce a bold mission or vision. I happen to agree with the mission statement and strategic direction for a whole range of reasons. But even if I didn’t, there will always be early adopters, and late adopters, and maybe some never-adopters. I sometimes like to say that “leadership isn’t in the Black or White decisions, it’s in deciding which shade of grey to choose.” Decision  making is rarely binary, and there are rarely absolutely right or wrong opinions. Moving ahead anyway in an inclusive, participative, open way is brave, and it is the right thing to do as a leader.

Helping people find and connect to meaning in their work is one of the most important things a leader can do. What other ways do you do this?

You can read an overview of the new strategic direction for Ross here. You can watch a video of Alison sharing some thoughts on the new direction here. Alison elaborates in her blog this month.