Raise your hand if you want more things at work that sap your will to carry on. I'm guessing no takers.

But beyond annoyances like that chatbot of a co-worker who can't read your Fascinating, I need to get back to work now look, there's a more sinister force in play.

You.

That is, if you're engaging in a particularly toxic set of behaviors--ones that drain the meaning out of work.

This is a big no-no. Professor Christopher Bartlett of Harvard University had it exactly right when he said, "People don't come to work to be No. 1 or No. 2, or to get a 20 percent return on assets, they come to get meaning from their lives."

As leaders we mean well. But we can, well, kill meaning without even realizing we're doing it.

Here are the four most brutal ways we can inadvertently drain meaning at work (and what to do about each one):

1. Destroying a sense of certainty

Research indicates that we are subconsciously driven to find reliable patterns in our lives, and that we have a deep-seated motivation to believe that our perceptions are correct.

Leaders can all too easily shatter an employee's perceived reality, thus creating an unsettling sense of uncertainty, with a few behaviors in particular.

When a leader acts inconsistently, is indecisive, mismanages change, or communicates poorly, it can send employees into a tailspin of unproductive uncertainty.

Guard against inconsistency by putting your priorities on a pedestal for all to see and constantly filtering your actions relative to those priorities. Battle your indecision by stepping back and evaluating the true cost of a wrong decision (might not be so bad), or by considering the cost of not deciding.

Make a clear case for change and enroll the recipients of that change well in advance.

Finally, consider quality communication to the troops an investment. In my earlier days at Procter & Gamble, I heard star CEO A.G. Lafley say more than once, "90 percent of my job is communication."

2. Destroying a sense of completion

Ever notice how intensely unsatisfying it is when you can't finish something you wanted to complete? We're built to thrive on a sense of progress. We like to check the box, unless we're filling out a form inquiring about the number of medical conditions we have.

Let's face it, there's more to our binge watching then just a burning desire to know if Jon Snow survives the season on Game of Thrones.

But when, as leaders, we mess with an employee's sense of ownership, or create rework and waste, we're violating that deeply held need for a sense of progress.

I've been guilty many times of not knowing I was killing an employee's sense of ownership by deciding to mix up project lists. Meanwhile, Sally's been working on that project for nine months and suddenly finds out it's been moved to Suzie.

Bam. Meaning exits stage left.

And that's just one way you can kill a sense of ownership. Odds are, you'll intuitively know when you're in the midst of doing it. It's a matter of catching yourself in the act.

Creating rework and waste happens in many scenarios, not the least of which is when you haven't given a clear briefing for what work needs to be done and why.

Guess what happens when you, the leader, asks people to do work?

They'll do it.

So be clear about the objective and expectations of the work you are asking for so it doesn't lead to time wasted, which is literally the opposite of meaningful work.

3. Destroying a sense of confidence

Overtly dismissing someone's ideas, being overly critical, or engaging in nothing-is-ever-good-enough mentality drains meaning--and the size of one's work force.

A great way to keep yourself from engaging in this behavior is to constantly ask: "Am I about to plant seeds of growth, or seeds of doubt?"

4. Destroying a sense of community

If you want your workplace to feel like a community instead of a corporation, you simply can't tolerate negativity or excessive internal competitiveness.

Ensure the negative ion personalities in your shop understand the impact of their behavior, and commit to creating a fair playing field and showing intolerance for political antics.

Published on: Sep 28, 2016
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