When the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, was still getting his graduate degree at Princeton, he was asked to oversee a group of engineers who were tasked with performing an endless series of tedious calculations. The math wasn’t hard if you were an engineer, but the work proceeded very slowly and it was full of errors. Growing more frustrated with the performance, Feynman made a critical discovery that would dramatically alter the course of events moving forward. He realized the problem wasn’t the math, but that the engineers were totally disengaged. So he enrolled his superiors to provide important context and tell the engineers exactly why they were performing the calculations, and why they were sweating their asses off in the New Mexico desert – in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to be exact.
It was at that time that Feynman’s boss, James Oppenheimer, pierced the veil of secrecy and let the engineers in on the enormity of what they were doing – calculations that would enable them to complete the race to build the atomic bomb before the Germans did, and thus win the war.
The workplace and the level of work were completely transformed. From that point forward, Feynman reported that the scientists worked ten times faster than before their task had been imbued with meaning, and with fierce commitment. 1
In fact, meaning is the performance enhancer of our times. It is how a manager can inspire sustained elevated performance and fulfillment.
The motivation from more money, a bigger title, better perks, or nicer surroundings doesn’t last. The deep seated nature of motivation born from a deep sense of meaning discovered, does.
We find meaning (or meaningfulness) in things that make emotional connections and are remembered, and thus matter. 2 When we feel a sense of belongingness or a sense that we are cared for, for example, it’s meaningful. We also find meaning in things that make us feel significant, that help us reach our full potential, that help us make sense of things, and that serve who we are and what’s most important to us.
What can you do as a manager to create meaning; to create such end states as these? Start by asking yourself these five questions:
- What can I do to create an authentic environment, one built on an underpinning of caring and teamwork?
- How can I reframe the work of others and imbue it with significance, and involve others in decision making to help them feel they matter even more?
- How can I maximize learning and growth for those around me, increasing their sense of felt competence, confidence, and significance?
- How can I help others to see their critical role in the bigger picture?
- How can I help others identify what’s most important to them and how they might better build from that internal blueprint?
Contemplating these questions and acting on them will yield game-changing results. In fact, your efforts to help others matter more will matter more than you can ever imagine.
1 Bennis, W., Building a Culture of Candor – a Crucial Key to Leadership (2004), The Conference Board Annual Report.
2 Holtaway, J., The Meaningful Workplace (May 30, 2012) from Gary Hamels emotive thinking blog.