5 Hacks for Meaningful Conversation at Work
Why meaningfulness is strategic in the workplace
I don’t know about you, but I continue to see a lot of fatigue for those going to work, especially for those in the hospitality industry or in medical care. To wit, we’ve seen in many regions that psychologists are in short supply to cope with the rise in mental health and burnout issues. When I inquired about psychologists in my area of London, the only opportunity I could find was for distance therapy (through Zoom). What’s causing this general sense of fatigue and malaise is that people aren’t just unhappy, they’re unfulfilled. We’ve all been spinning our wheels, coping with a great deal of “VUCA[i]” and a constant stream of bad news and, for many, work just doesn’t seem like a great way to spend the 4000 weeks[ii] we have on this Earth. I believe that businesses would do well to insert more meaningfulness into what they do. At a meta level, it’s to figure out the answer to the question: how would the Earth be worse off without me or my company? At a more granular level, how can each day feel more potent, more enlivening? If we could create more meaningful moments in our day, that would go far to counter the fears and assuage the boredom or feeling of inutility.
I can think of many individuals who’ve said to me that they consider their employment as “just a job.” And there are plenty of people who continue to believe that there’s no place for personal affairs or personality at work. It’s strictly professional. The justification revolves around notions of competency and performance. It’s a transactional approach to work. And money is essentially the end game. When people talk about the currency of trust at work, it’s certainly difficult to be effective without it. Pretty much every business involves people. Even an e-Commerce site needs UX designers to work with developers and product managers who need to work with creatives and a whole slew of third-party suppliers. I think we’re all able to “do what we need to do” for a certain time. Think of the time you went to work on very little sleep. It’s not fun, but we struggle through. We know how to suck it up… for a time. But we also can be sucked dry.
The issue becomes the build-up. You may be sleeping full nights but still find the day difficult to get through. Sleep is a fundamental way to resource oneself, but it’s not the only ingredient. I consider that we start each day with a given amount of energy to help deal with all the things we face for the day. At the end of the day, depending on what happened, we feel more or less depleted. This notion of burnout and fatigue sets in when, day after day, that end-of-day fatigue is heavy, seemingly unrelenting. The default mode for many who feel this fatigue and/or boredom at work is to have a side hustle or to try to make up for the ennui by having ‘great weekends.’ This inevitably means rushing out the door on Friday evening and having a woeful night of sleep on the Sunday night before the return to the ‘slog.’
Here’s how I like to describe the situation every morning. See figure 1. We wake up with a certain energy level and get our day going, usually with a series of habitual activities. The level of energy at the beginning of the day, say x=2, is to help manage the combination entropic (e.g. discovering a bigger bill to pay, getting a speeding ticket, etc.) and energising activities (e.g. snuggling with a loved one, achieving an objective, etc.) of the day. Every day is different. But at best, we can hope to end the day at around the same level (e.g. z=2), noting that this is more a philosophical level of energy that includes a sense of completion, if not fulfilment. You will be physically tired, but emotionally no more drained than you began the day.
Figure 1 - Daily ebb and flow
However, if the number of entropic activities that sap your energy outweigh the energising activities, you’ll end the day depleted. See figure 2. The effect of having so many negative activities, that all require an extra thrust to manage and/or overcome, wears you down. And in these moments, you feel heavier, less dynamic. They tax your positive vibrations. Internally you’re constantly sighing. At best, you might feel apathy. At worst, you’ll feel overwhelmed and/or depressed. Sleep feels even more vital, but its revitalizing power is far from satisfactory. And, in a snowball effect, you become less keen, less generous, less positive.
Figure 2 - Lower energy
If you want to achieve a higher level of energy throughout the day, there must be more moments that generate versus sapping energy. See figure 3. In this case, you end your day still invigorated. And when you wake up, you are feeling inspired.
Figure 3 - Higher Energy
So how does one gain more energy? An easier task is surely to identify the energy sappers: bad boss, bad ambiance, long commute, poor culture, poor results… But we can’t fix everything and reality is that life (and work) is filled with challenge. That’s part of the journey. All the same, there are several possible solutions for finding more energy, including getting a good night’s sleep. The one big idea I want to focus on is the power of having more meaningfulness at work, and more specifically how meaningful conversations can be good for business and for the soul.
Meaningfulness at work
A report from The Energy Project and HBR in 2014, showed to what extent employees don’t feel that their core needs are being met. I was particularly attentive to the “spiritual” category, where 55% of those surveyed felt that they don’t have meaning or significance at work.
Figure 4 - HBR and The Energy Project research
When you have greater meaning in your life at work, engagement increases (Science Direct research) and performance (Sage Journals research) is enhanced. In my book, Futureproof[iii], co-written with Caleb Storkey, we laid out in the very first chapter the importance of having meaningfulness at work. Importantly, that sense of meaningfulness often has a personal link. Of course, there’s meaningfulness in our professional capacity, but the personal connection into the activity is where the payoff is bigger. This is how you tap into greater discretionary energy. Caleb and I created the 5Ps of meaningful activities at work:
Prize – feeling prized, through pleasure, play, recognition and promotion.
People – being part of team with whom you share values, attitude and experiences, that fosters a feeling of engagement. A Brookings working paper, published in 2020, showed that relationships (and a sense of relatedness) are the most important determinant of meaningfulness at work.
Profit – being part of a winning team is exciting, and it’s especially powerful if you’ve gone through difficult times to get there. Execution of a well-laid out strategy that follows an appropriate Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) model.
Planet – making your business more sustainable and eco-friendlier in a legitimate way.
Purpose – Last and certainly not least is having a sense of purpose, whereby your mission is to make a difference, by making the world a better place.
Figure 5 - 5Ps for Meaningfulness
The idea behind these five concepts isn’t to become fixated or dogmatic about how much of each you have, it’s far more about the quality, and attempting to make sure that you believe what you are doing makes a difference. I would like to highlight the work by Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundan, who wrote “How to Avoid Being Prisoners of Our Thoughts,” which, based on the pioneering work of Viktor Frankl, is essentially all about creating meaning out of our work. I was fortunate to have Alex as a guest on my podcast to discuss his work (see here).
Meaningful conversations at work
It thus makes sense that having conversations that revolve around these five P’s can be meaningful. Having a meaningful conversation means talking about things that are important, more emotional and in which we have more investment a.k.a. skin in the game. There’s inevitably a scale of importance and not every conversation needs to be profound. But discussing these topics makes sense from a business standpoint and, at the same time, can be enlivening, uplifting our spirits. When we converse on meaningful topics, we are connecting in a deeper way. Our synapses are fired up. Oxytocin is released.
Having meaningfulness at work is strategic!
Here are five different ways you can use or insert more meaningful conversation while you’re at work.
1. Craft your North Star. If you never worked on a personal purpose statement (“North Star”) that is explicit and precise, I highly recommend you do so. Because, once you have your own personal purpose, it’s easier to attach importance – at a personal level – to your activities. In You Lead,[iv] I set out one exercise you can use to help fashion your North Star setting. I like to color in my calendar for easier visualization. You might want to color in those events that are aligned with your purpose.
2. Review your day’s activities and apply a scale of +++ that predicts where you’re going to find meaningfulness. As above, you could color code the activities that are energizing and those which are entropic. What does your week look like? The act of coloring in takes a few extra seconds, and underscores my intentionality.
3. Make sure you’re not back to back in meetings all day. As this study by Microsoft Human Factors Lab identified in 2021, using EEG caps to detect electrical activity in the brain, that breaks allow the brain to reset, improves the ability to focus and desire to engage. As reported in Fast Company, a 2022 study by Perceptyx indicated that having too many meetings ‘can make you act like a jerk.’ The study found that, “For percent of time in meetings, we found a negative correlation with politeness. In other words, the more time people spend in meetings, the less polite they are to the people around them.” [Source] When I was a top executive, I made it a practice to keep my agenda 50% free which afforded me time for reflection and to deal with the unexpected events.
4. Look for chances to insert more personal exchanges in your day. When I was working in L’Oréal Canada, I appreciated the vision of my boss, Jochen Zaumseil, who insisted on having a café designed into the plan for our new offices. An informal setting, stripped of the rigidity of a meeting, can often lead to more candid and penetrating conversations. I believe that there’s great value in face-to-face conversation versus a WhatsApp or zoom.
5. Be intentional in the way that meetings are set up and run. For starters, see if there are items on the agenda that fit into the category of meaningfulness. Secondly, if you are the leader, consider ways where you can set the example. For example, this could be in the form of showing gratitude and recognition toward team members.
I believe that businesses would do well to insert more meaningfulness into what they do. At a meta level, it’s to figure out the answer to the question: how would the Earth be worse off without me or my company? At a more granular level, how can each day feel more potent, more enlivening? If we could create more meaningful moments in our day, that would go far to counter the fears and assuage the boredom or feeling of inutility.
DIALOGOS - Meaningful Conversation is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
[i] VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity
[ii] Reference to Oliver Burkeman’s bestselling book, “Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It. Embrace your limits. Change your life – and here’s my podcast with Oliver.
[iii] Futureproof, How To Get Your Business Ready For The Next Disruption (co-written with Caleb Storkey, Pearson, 2017). Find out more here.
[iv] You Lead, How Being Yourself Makes You A Better Leader (Kogan Page, 2021). Find out more here.