Give Them Meaning, Not Just Money

A few weeks ago, Harvard Business Review editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius interviewed Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella about his ideas for a post-pandemic future. Not surprisingly, Nadella talked about some technology things, like Microsoft’s new collaboration platform, virtual reality, and the Facebook metaverse. But, to me, his most important insight was about the mindset change in employees – as a result of the pandemic.

He said:

“What if everybody who works at Microsoft said, ‘I don’t work for Microsoft; Microsoft works for me. In other words, am I able to fulfill my aspirations and have an impact on the world?”

Of course, some employees have always expected that from work, and some (a few) organisations have provided it. But the pandemic has forced people to re-assess and re-evaluate what really matters to them. And many more employees now are unwilling to put up with a job that doesn’t align with their personal goals.

As much as we talk about disruption, change, foresight, and business strategy, one thing matters more than anything else for building a better team: meaningful work that makes a real difference to the world.

What’s your MQ?

McKinsey calls this MQ, the ‘meaning quotient’, which complements IQ (intellectual knowledge) and EQ (emotional intelligence). Many employees now assume IQ and EQ are givens, but a leader who offers MQ motivates and inspires them at work. When people buy into a shared vision, they are pulled by a stronger ‘Yes’, which makes it easier to work through obstacles along the way.

This matters a lot for younger team members, especially Generation Z, who are soon to be the largest group in the workforce. An O.C. Tanner study found 30% of Generation Z staff would take a significant pay cut to work for a cause they believed in, and a S&P Global survey said 62% of them want to create something that changes the world.

But don’t assume it’s only your younger team members who want purpose and meaning in their work. It might be a higher priority for them, but everybody is motivated by meaningful work.

This really matters!

In 2012, Google set out to discover the secrets of effective teams. Their Project Aristotle (named after Aristotle, who said, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’) identified five key characteristics of an effective team:

  1. Psychological Safety: People feel safe to take risks around their colleagues, and won’t feel embarrassed or be punished for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or suggesting a new idea.
  2. Dependability: People reliably complete quality work on time (versus the opposite: shirking responsibilities) and can rely on other team members to do the same.
  3. Structure And Clarity: Everybody understands the expectations of their job, their outcomes and goals, the process for achieving them, and the consequences of their performance.
  4. Meaning: People find meaning in the work itself or its output, and it aligns with their own sense of purpose and personal goals.
  5. Impact: Everybody knows that the result of their work – at both an individual and team level – makes a difference and contributes to larger goals.

Look at the last two: meaning and impact. The best people want meaningful work that makes a difference in the world.

Some leaders have always made this a priority. But not all. And it’s now a ‘must have’, not just a ‘nice to have’.

The way to get people to build a ship is not to teach them carpentry, assign them tasks, and give them schedules to meet; but to inspire them to long for the infinite immensity of the sea. – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


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