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Research - 21.07.2022 - 00:00

Creating a sense of meaning is also a leadership issue

Employees often seek the meaning of life – or at least part of it – in their work. Those who find it show more dedica-tion. This is revealed by various studies. The role played by executives’ attitude and conduct has been examined by a study which the University of St.Gallen (HSG) took part in.

21 July 2022. In today’s world of work, which is characterised by disruption and a high degree of specialisation, many people find it difficult to see any meaning in their professional activity. Whether they succeed or not also depends on whether they are able to feel that their work is a contribution to a greater whole. A new study conducted by the HSG’s Institute for Leadership and Human Resource Management (IFPM-HSG) in cooperation with other universities* reveals that executives are able to exert a crucial influence on this process of discovering meaning. The fundamental prerequisite for this is - quite intuitively – that the executives must regard their work as meaningful themselves.

The style of leadership is crucial

Whether this meaning is transferred from executives to employees essentially depends on their style of leadership. The keyword is visionary leadership. According to the study, executives who consider their work to be meaningful are more frequently inclined to automatically adopt this leadership behaviour. “Visionary or inspiring leadership makes employees aware of the meaning of their activities,” explains Prof. Dr. Heike Bruch of the IFPM-HSG. In practical working life, it is particularly inspiring if executives sketch a concrete image of the future, a vision, while pointing out its higher significance, such as the con-tribution that everyone’s work makes to the future of the company, to customers or to society. “Particular-ly in a drastically changing world, the meaning of work is especially important to people. And inspiring executives are able to reinforce this meaning or make employees aware of it in the first place.”

New employees are easier to influence

The strength of this effect, however, also depends on the duration of working relations between execu-tives and employees. If cooperation is still rather young, executives have a stronger influence on the em-ployees’ perception of meaning than if this relationship has been going on for some time. In a random sample of the study, visionary leadership was no longer able to provide any additional benefit for em-ployees’ experience of meaning after about five years. “On the basis of the self-concept theory, we assume that it is at the beginning of employment relations that visionary leadership is able provide employees with valuable and new information about the experience of meaning. They can use this information in order to understand who they are at work and what contribution they make with their work,” explains Prof. Dr. Petra Kipfelsberger of the IFPM-HSG. With the increased duration of employment relations, however, this influence begins to wane since employees’ self-concept and self-perception become stable over the course of time and employees are less susceptible to influence with regard to their experience of meaning.

The experience of meaning boosts performance

Finally, the study confirms that executives with a strong perception of meaning are able to use visionary leadership to ultimately also boost their employees’ performance and have a lower rate of employee turnover. In Prof. Dr. Heike Bruch’s view, the research work provides companies with the following key insight: “Executives are only able to feel inspiring if they have a strong perception of meaning. Faced with highly turbulent times, which often make great demands on executives, it is a crucial initial ap-proach to reinforce the meaning of (leadership) work by means of self-management, coaching and in other ways.”

*Besides the HSG, the University of Navarra in Spain, the University of Amsterdam and Bar-Ilan Univer-sity in Israel participated in the study.

Image: Adobe Stock / Flamingo Images

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