From his start in the recruiting sector, Danny Gutknecht understood that today’s workers are less interested in professional stature and more interested in work that they connect with authentically. In the meantime, companies are scrambling to define a synergistic meaning that unites employees’ passion and organization’s purpose.
I had a chance to interview Danny Gutknecht about his new book, Meaning at Work – And Its Hidden Language, which shares strategies to steer organizations toward fulfilling the potential of their employees.
Why has finding meaning at work become so important?
Meaning is undergoing a fundamental shift in society. We are experiencing a transition from authority-based meaning systems to personal-and-process-based systems. We can see this in all the major trends — from consumers seeking out authentic and unique experiences, to employees looking for work that is personally meaningful, to people seeking fulfillment of potential and self-actualization.
What’s the most important thing managers can do to inspire staff, so they aren’t just putting in their time?
They can’t. Inspirational interactions are like continually pumping up a leaky tire. Managers first have to develop personal meaning beyond goals and metrics. Then they have to develop enough competency around meaning and how it works before they can effectively build meaning-making environments.
Why is it so difficult for many of today’s organizations to find the shared meaning that defines and inspires them?
Two reasons: The first is domain confusion. We’re dealing with four different domains or houses of existence at any given time: Phenomena, Rights, Resources and Meaning. Bijoy Goswami has developed a great model called Human Fugue that explains these domains in depth. We’ve developed processes and languages to deal with the first three houses, like the scientific method, democracy, and entrepreneurship. We’re excellent at using these tools and models to make progress. Meaning is one of the oldest domains, but we haven’t mastered the tools and processes in any systematic manner to wield it properly.
The second reason is that organizational meaning is more complicated than personal meaning — it’s embedded in the personal vernaculars and rituals that people find around the activity of business itself. You have to mine organizational meaning before you can analyze and synthesize it into organizational life so that employees can personalize it.
What’s an example of an organization that has successfully created a meaningful workplace and how did it go about doing that?
Crossroads Hospice has been developing a process for meaning for almost 20 years, and it shows. The value it delivers compared to its competitors is remarkable. It wins hands-down in almost every important category of providing the right type of care. For years, the meaning was communicated and stewarded by its founder Perry Farmer. Crossroads Hospice has recently identified that it’s important to transition the process of stewarding the meaning domain of the company from the founder to its employees, which it is doing now, and it has been incredibly successful.
In Meaning at Work, you describe “Essence Mining” as a type of dialogue to help organizations define their underlying values. How does Essence Mining work?
Essence Mining is a process for organizational meaning-making that deals with meaning on its own terms. It exposes the meaning of the organization in a set of themes that are authentic and unique to the organization. Interestingly enough, it also exposes faulty or unnecessary structures and practices in the organization that stunt organizational potential in the other Houses. The structures of other domains that aren’t authentic to the organization, and lack of a process for meaning, are often what holds the organization back.
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