In my years as a consultant I have asked many entrepreneurs, owners and executives to compile a list of the 5 key factors for success. The question I asked was, “How can we improve the efficiency of our staff?” Nearly all lists featured meaning, but in no case it placed first. Other things kept displacing our desire for fulfilment; sometimes it was the qualification of staff, other times it was the salary system or the work tools.
One thing the answers made clear was that meaning is important but never the decisive factor. In this article I want to explain why this is the case, and how we can utilize the power of fulfilment.
Meaning, the Problem Child in Organizations
Sometimes a certain issue needs to be dealt with immediately; otherwise it will lose its impact potential. For me, the concept of professional (human) fulfilment was such an issue. I began by making the following cases:
We all have a desire for fulfilment. People who are fulfilled
- are peak performers
- act intelligently
- tough it out, even when things get rough.
Of those I presented these assumptions with no one disapproved, yet nobody seemed willing to make them the linchpin of company policy. Why? Because it is too complex!
Understanding the Complexity of Meaning
In order to comprehend what it means to be connected with meaning – personally or professionally – it is helpful to differentiate:
The desire to give our life a meaning is deeply rooted within all of us. This desire determines our actions and is also an indicator for our conception of (future) fulfilment.
In many cases, obtaining individual meaning is impossible without the effort of other people giving us what we long for in return for something we do or are. For example, an actor needs to perform in case he wants to be acknowledged with applause by an audience.
Extrinsical meaning has an effect on other people to the point of manipulation. Virtually all companies are structured and formalized by it. The management might be able to foreground its individual meaning, but the employees are bound by their employment contracts, putting extrinsical meaning in front of individual meaning.
Common meaning describes situations in which individual meaning and extrinsical meaning of members of a group of people are similar. Consequently, their common actions will still be able to ensure individual fulfilment. Where they want go to, and why, is determined by similar notions, be it a world-view or an organization. Common meaning emerges from being connected with meaning. Common meaning as existent in groups might still be extrinsical meaning when observed from outside this group.
Case study: As part of his doctoral thesis, an inventor developed a new kind of technology and wanted to turn it into marketable products. He gathered fellow campaigners as well as investors, connecting themselves to his individual meaning and later to the common meaning of the group. The common meaning experienced by all the developers, employees, backers, lawyers and associates created an impressive amount of power to bring the products to the market, ultimately giving life to a research company worth several millions.
Three decades later one of the employees proved that the basic assumptions underlying the technology were false and that all of the products were inoperable. It then took several years, cost millions of Euros and brought the inventor to the brink of physical and emotional health before he and the group desisted from this common meaning, or in this case: common mania.
Common mania is the frightening and destructive twin of common meaning. People who have fallen victim to this mania show behavior that is rational in their own opinion but destructive, offending and potentially dangerous when looked at from the outside.
How can we distinguish common meaning and common mania?
Common meaning supports deviant thinking, speaking and acting, i.e. the ability to subordinate the individual meaning to the common meaning, or not. As soon as a group uses violence to enforce the common meaning it becomes common mania. Transitions are rather fluid here. It is a tightrope walk that can be eased by performing reality checks on a regular basis: Is the common meaning still founded on verifiable reality?
Case study: The doctors Robin Warren and Barry Marshall provided evidence for the fact that gastric ulcers are bacterial and can thus be treated with antibiotics. In spite of the testable evidence presented, the medical fraternity clung to the common mania stating that gastric ulcers are caused by spicy food, alcohol and stress. Millions of patients still underwent surgery, and maybe these kinds of operations would still be performed had not the common meaning of Marshall and Warren prevailed over the common mania of their colleagues.¹
Common meaning allowing to connect and to disconnect from it as well as holding out against recurring reality checks is what I call
Common Welfare Meaning
It combines the connecting to a common meaning with a critical self-reflection and the freedom to disconnect at any time.
There are things, notions and opinions that have passed reality checks hundred years ago that would never do so today. Some of these things were even celebrated as being great achievements of society or science, such as the combustion engine.
Business economics exempts external effects like water consumption for sugar cane cultivation from the responsibility of soft drink producers. This may have been acceptable 50 years ago, but when reality checked it certainly makes no sense, and has never done so.
Environment Affects Meaning
Meaning is influenced by values, ideologies, emotions as well as by the spirituality of the group and those it is enclosed by. Being connected with meaning in North Korea or in Germany are two different things. The values a society lives by have a strong impact on the concepts of meaning of the society members, and this concept is neither “positive” nor “good”. Many a mania is insistent that it is right and good.
Meaning and Time
It is also helpful to include aspects of time and space when exploring meaning. Let us look at meaning as a short-term, medium-term and long-term reference point.
I can momentarily hold down a job that has no meaning, one that does not interest me or require my skills. Still, this work can have meaning in the medium-term because no one seems to notice that I am the wrong person in the wrong place. And it can have meaning in the long-term because it provides an easy way for me to secure the existence of my beloved family, tiding me over my job dissatisfaction.
Some of you may be having a hard time remembering the starting point of this article, which is exactly the problem with meaning in organizations. It is too complex. No one can look into other peoples’ minds to access their notion of meaning. Demanding management to give meaning and thereby requiring the institutionalization of extrinsical meaning is stupid.
Still, there is the desire to utilize the power created by fulfilment for company good. How to do this I will explain in my next microTOOL blog post on February 11, 2015.
Hints and literature with interlinking of meaning:
 Dr. Andreas Zeuch – Feel it! So viel Intuition verträgt ihr Unternehmen (2011) – Wiley
Gebhard Borck – “Affenmärchen – Arbeit frei von Lack & Leder”, you can buy the book or read it online at unter www.affenmärchen.de.
Bernd Geropp – Ist die Katze aus dem Haus … so arbeiten Ihre Mitarbeiter eigenverantwortlich und selbständig (2013) – redline Verlag
Thomas Höge, Tatjana Schnell – Wirtschaftspsychologie 14. Jahrgang 2012 Heft 1 91 – 99 – Kein Arbeitsengagement ohne Sinnerfüllung
Niels Pfläging – Die 12 neuen Gesetze der Führung: Der Kodex: Warum Management verzichtbar ist – Campus
Schaufeil, W. B. Saalnova, M., González-Romá V. & Bakker, A. B. (2002). – The measurment of engagement and burnout: a two sample confirmatory factor Analytik apporach. Journal of Happiges Studies, 3, 71-92