The Meaning Quotient

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Business leaders are striving hard to find the missing MQ ingredients so that they can improve motivation and workforce productivity.
 
--By Vijayanti Khare
 
Musicians talk about being “in the groove”, sportsmen about being “in the zone.” Can employees in the workplace experience similar performance peaks and, if so, what can top management do to encourage the mental state that brings them about?
 
What is that 'factor' in work environments that inspires exceptional levels of energy, increases self-confidence, and boosts individual productivity. Business leaders when asked about the ingredient they think is most often missing for them and for their colleagues—and by implication is most difficult to provide — almost invariably signal the same thing: a strong sense of meaning.
 
By “meaning”, they imply a feeling that what’s happening really matters, that what’s being done has not been done before or that it will make a difference to others. This is the Meaning Quotient, the MQ.
 
Of the three Qs that characterize a workplace likely to generate the 'zone or the groove' and inspire peak performance, we frequently hear from business leaders that MQ is the hardest to get right.
 
Given the significance of injecting meaning into people’s work lives, one must take the time to design and implement strategies that increase the MQ for individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole.
 
Business leaders are striving hard to find the missing MQ ingredients so that they can improve motivation and workforce productivity. Late last year, a survey (conducted by the think tank and researchers at McKinsey) of more than 500 US-based HR executives identified employee engagement as one of the top five critical human-capital priorities facing organizations.
 
American management expert Gary Hamel urges modern managers to see themselves as “entrepreneurs of meaning.” In The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile highlights the enormous benefits that a sense of forward momentum can have for employees’ “inner work life.” The organisational psychologist Mihàly Csìkszentmihàlyi, writes extensively about “the making of meaning” in his book Good Business.
 
The idea of meaning at work is not new. And yet numerous misguided leaders often kill meaning in avoidable ways.  It is suggested that “meaning maker” is a critical role for corporate strategists and all the senior management. In this article, I emphasize that meaning drives higher workplace productivity and suggest ways in which business leaders can create meaning.
 
Meaning and Performance
The mental state that gives rise to great performance—in sports, business, or the arts—has been described in different ways. The psychologist Csìkszentmihàlyi studied thousands of subjects, from sculptors to factory workers, and asked them to record their feelings at intervals throughout the working day. He observed that people fully employing their core capabilities to meet a goal or challenge created what he called “flow.”
 
More importantly, he found that individuals who frequently experienced it were more productive and derived greater satisfaction from their work than those who did not. They set goals for themselves to increase their capabilities, thereby tapping into a seemingly limitless well of energy. And they expressed a willingness to repeat those activities in which they achieved the flow even if they were not being paid to do so.
 
Athletes describe the same feeling as being in the zone. Bill Russell, a key player for the Boston Celtics during the period when they won 11 professional basketball championships in 13 years, put it thus: “When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level. . . . It would surround not only me and the other Celtics, but also the players on the other team. . . . At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened. The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive. . . . I’d be putting out the maximum effort . . . and yet I never felt the pain.”
 
Flow sounds great in theory, but few business leaders have mastered the skill of generating it reliably in the workplace. An easy first step is to consider what creates flow in your own work situation—a question I have put directly to around a thousand executives during workshops and consultancies conducted over the last decade right here in Nepal.  In this exercise, individuals initially think about their own personal peak performance with a team. Then they pinpoint the conditions that made this level of performance possible: What in the team environment was there more or less of than usual?
 
The remarkably consistent answers I have received fall into three categories.
 
The first set includes elements such as role clarity, a clear understanding of objectives, and access to the knowledge and resources needed to get the job done. These are what one might term rational elements of a flow experience or, to use a familiar term- the intellectual quotient (IQ).
 
When the IQ of a work environment is low, the energy employees bring to the workplace is misdirected and often conflicting.
 
The second set of answers includes factors related to the quality of the interactions among those involved. Here, respondents often mention a baseline of trust and respect, constructive conflict, a sense of humor, a general feeling that “we are in this together,” and the corresponding ability to collaborate effectively. These create an emotionally safe environment to pursue challenging goals or, to borrow from the writings of Daniel Goleman and others, an environment with a high emotional quotient (EQ).
 
When the EQ of a workplace is lacking, employee energy dissipates in the form of office politics, ego management, and passive-aggressive avoidance of tough issues.
 
While IQ and EQ are absolutely necessary to create the conditions for peak performance, they are far from sufficient. The longest list of words from executives’ answers to peak-performance questions brings out another Q-factor!
 
This third one describes the peak-performance experience as involving high stakes, excitement, a challenge; and something that the individual feels matters, will make a difference, and hasn’t been done before. This is the meaning quotient (MQ) of work.
 
When a business environment’s MQ is low, employees put less energy into their work and see it as “just a job” that gives them little more than a paycheck.
 
The opportunity cost of the missing meaning is enormous.
 
 If employees working in a high-IQ, high-EQ, and high-MQ environment are five times more productive at their peak than they are on average, consider what even a relatively modest 20-percentage-point increase in peak time would yield in overall work-place productivity—it would almost double.
 
What’s more, when executives are asked to locate the bottlenecks to peak performance in their organisations, more than 90 percent choose MQ-related issues.
 
Business leaders, designated management seniors, unit heads, departmental managers and all such roles of responsibility in an organisation need to give their staff a sense of direction and meaning. To quote just one example, David Farr, Chairman and CEO of Emerson Electric, is known for asking virtually everyone he encounters in the organisation four questions:
1. how do you make a difference? (testing for alignment with the company’s direction);
 
 2. what improvement idea are you working on? (emphasizing continuous improvement);
 
 3. when did you last get coaching from your boss? (emphasizing the importance of people development); and
 
 4. who is the enemy? (emphasizing the importance of “One Emerson” and no silos, as well as directing the staff’s energy towards the external threat).
 
The motivational effect of this approach has been widely noted by Emerson employees.
 
MQ helps drive peak performance, especially in periods of intense change. Companies that actively create meaning can significantly enhance workplace productivity. The commonly over-used platitudes about communication, quality feedback, and empowerment do not work anymore. One needs to create specific tools that really work. 
 
For example, tell stories that demonstrate the impact of change on society, customers, working teams, and individuals—as well as on the company itself. Allow employees, as far as practicable, to get involved in creating their own sense of direction. Go beyond financial compensation to motivate people—small and unexpected gestures can be highly effective.
 
Each of our organisations here, would do well to design ways and means of bringing in the MQ for their employees. The productivity and quality of performance spikes up and stays consistent when each day is not just 'more of the same' but a 'flow' and 'in the zone'.
 
Vaijayanti Khare is known for her dynamic engagements in the corporate, academic, social and development fields in Kathmandu over the past decade. Her writings are a reflection of her hands-on work, insights, studies, success and challenges.

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