I have been meaning to summarize the article How leaders kill meaning at work from McKinsey Quarterly:
“In our book and a recent Harvard Business Review article,3 we argue that managers at all levels routinely—and unwittingly—undermine the meaningfulness of work for their direct subordinates through everyday words and actions. These include dismissing the importance of subordinates’ work or ideas, destroying a sense of ownership by switching people off project teams before work is finalized, shifting goals so frequently that people despair that their work will ever see the light of day, and neglecting to keep subordinates up to date on changing priorities for customers.”
But specifically, the article points out the following traps:
1. Mediocrity Signals: Executives encourage mediocre behavior through their actions, while describing greatness in missions statements. For example, some executives talk at length about innovation, but innovation projects never receive investments. In one company the top executive asked to eliminate non-strategic R&D investments. The portfolio manager ranked all the projects and developed a list lowest ranked projects. The executive overruled the entire list without any justification (they were his pet projects).
2. Strategic “Attention Deficit Disorder”: Executives do not allow adequate time to mature strategic initiatives and see their results. I have seen this many times. Most new technology or product development takes time. Executives loose interest and change priorities. This is very demoralizing for R&D teams.
3. Complex bureaucracies lacking accountability: Many times executives set up complex organization structures to satisfy (mainly) executive politics. Other times, there are overlapping roles and responsibilities. In either case, there is lack of accountability for different functions. One part of the organization not working hard impacts morale everywhere.
4. Unactionable strategies and goals: Many times executives set up big goals but most teams do not know what to do to achieve those goals. In one company the executives wrote a strategic plan which said cut costs and improve innovation (literally). They then proceeded to tell everyone to achieve those goals. No one knew what to do!
It is essential for managers to avoid these traps. One key would be to keep employee perspective in mind and provide clarity on how everyone can contribute. Other is to assess if there is a disconnect between the executive team perspective and that of employees at large.