Meaning in meetings: Are you cutting stone or building a cathedral?

Have you ever been to a meeting, thinking ”What the heck am I doing here?”. You didn’t understand why you should be there and the objectives and content of the meeting seemed meaningless to you. I have tried it and it’s not a nice feeling. You want to get out and do something more important, something that doesn’t feel like a waste of time.

Nevertheless, thats what many meeting participants experience way too often. Obviously a loose-loose situation. The participant feels he is wasting his time and the meeting organisers have a participant who is demotivated and will loose attention and in worst case will start complaining and ruin it for other participants.

What’s lacking is meaning. Meaning is a key driver in human motivation. When we do something we experience as meaningful, we flourish and work harder, are more resilient and adaptive to change. Imagine how hard you would work to safe your best friend’s life or help your old mother? Imagine that the president of your country came to you personally and said – ”I need you for a special mission, that will save the future of the earth. I think you are the only person who has the abilities to do it. We are all dependent on you. Can I count on you?”. Would you say Yes? Probably you would.

When we feel indispensable on a very important mission, we are highly motivated. This is the kind of participants we want at our meetings. According to the psychology professor Martin Seligman, to experience meaning is one of the most important elements in a happy life. In his definition life is meaningful when you are ”Using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are”.

For the modern employee value appropriation is not meaningful. To earn money just for the sake of earning money or to help the company grow just for the sake of shareholders is not an honorable mission that makes you want to get out of bed early in the morning. Instead we want to be value creating. We want to use our talents to make a difference for others. We don’t just want to be stonecutters, we want to build cathedrals.

According to the researcher Ib Ravn there are four kinds of meaning you can experience at work:
1. When you feel you fulfill your potential and use your strengths and virtues.
2. When you feel you give an important contribution to your work.
3. When you feel you do something important for your collegues or teammates.
4. When you feel your job creates value, by covering the real needs of the customers (and not just sell them some crap they really don’t need).

So if we want to create better meetings and happy lifes for other people, we should care about meaning in meetings. Instead of motivating employees with bonuses and material rewards, we should give them a decent pay and a mission they can’t deny.

And how do you do that?

  1. What Cathedral are you building? Why is this meeting indispensable? Explain the real reason behind the meeting. Why is this important on a higher level. How will this meeting change the world, the value for the customers or the future of the company?
  2. Clear objectives. Make sure the meeting always has an objective and communicate it clearly to the participants. Tell them what the expected output of the meeting is, and how they can contribute.
  3. Unfold the participants potential. Give opportunities for the participants to use their strengths and virtues to contribute to the objectives of the meeting. Make them feel indispensable.
  4. Let the participants help each other produce something important. Let everyone experience that they are an important part of a productive community.
  5. Engage the participants. Engage them before, under and after the meeting and invite them to help finding the meaning themselves.
  6. Think green and responsible. Make the meeting green and sustainable and add a social responsibility program, to show that you care about more than just yourselves.

Ravn, Ib (2008). Mening i Arbejdslivet – teori og praksisudvikling. Erhvervspsykologi, 6, (4) 44-73.
Seligman, Martin (2011). Flourish – A visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Free Press.

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