The Meaning Quotient

Posted on Feb 1, 2013 | 5 Comments

How often at work do you have that great feeling of being “in the zone”?

According to an article by Susie Cranston and Scott Keller in the McKinsey Quarterly, you’re lucky if it’s 10% of your time. Still, that time is incredibly important and well worth trying to expand.

The authors explain, “When we ask executives during the peak-performance exercise how much more productive they were at their peak than they were on average . . . we get a range of answers, but the most common at senior levels is an increase of five times.”

Five times is a lot. The authors say peak performance is most likely to come from organizations that have mastered not only the intellectual quotient of work (the rational parts) and the emotional quotient of work (people’s not-always-rational feelings about it), but also the “meaning quotient” of work, which they dub “MQ.”

The problem is that many organizations don’t know how to make their employees feel a sense of meaning or purpose. “Inspirational visions, along the lines of Walt Disney’s ‘make people happy’ or Google’s ‘organize the world’s information,’ have little relevance if you produce ball bearings or garage doors,” they write. As an alternative, organizations should consider three things to make work more meaningful:

  1. Tell stories that touch not only on internal workings of the company but also on the broader beneficial effects of the business on society, the customer and the employee.
  2. Let employees craft a lot of their own processes and solutions.
  3. Give small, unexpected rewards.

While we’re not sure if the third item on the list really fits in terms of “meaning,” we’re certain that Peter Drucker would have agreed with the first two points. In fact, he was busy making them some 70 years ago.

Photo credit: Chris Willis

Photo credit: Chris Willis

In Concept of the Corporation, published in 1946, Drucker explained that wartime production had taught manufacturers the importance of making work meaningful. “Plant management was forced to use its imagination to establish a relation between the war-worker and his product, not out of humanitarian reasons for the sake of greater efficiency,” he wote. “They have also come to understand that, in the past, they have been deficient in imagination and have failed to see both the worker’s need for a relation to his work, and the way in which this need can be answered.”

Sometimes this meant flying in a completed fighter jet just so that everyone could see it.  Sometimes, it just meant talking about it.

As for letting employees craft their own responses and solutions, this, likewise, became an enduring theme of Drucker’s work. In the 1940s, it was a matter of freeing workers up from the uniform assembly line and allowing them to help design and organize the manufacturing process. By the 1980s and ’90s, it was a matter of getting the knowledge worker to think in terms of contribution. Specifically, as laid out in Management Challenges for the 21stCentury, Drucker hoped workers would ask the following question: “How could I make the greatest contribution with my strengths, my way of performing, my values, to what needs to be done?

What do you think? How can companies that produce ball bearings (or the knowledge-work equivalents) best instill a sense of meaning in the workplace?


  1. Mike Grayson
    February 2, 2013

    Achievement and fulfillment are two sides to the same coin. One rarely feels fulfilled if they have not achieved, and it is possible to achieve great things, yet not feel fulfilled. But both sides need to be in balance in order for a person to be successful.

    Being fulfilled starts within oneself. It requires the right attitude. A good leader can inspire that attitude by showing someone how their contribution matters, how they are making a difference in this world.

    Having a garage door that gets stuck half way up, or an engine that seizes due to a faulty bearing can ruin a person’s day. But we take those things for granted. We should be thankful to those who take pride in their work and make products that we can depend on.

  2. Maverick 18
    February 2, 2013

    Arbeit macht Sie ist frei nicht wahr.
    (Work will make you free is not true.)
    Expressed much more meaningfully in German.

  3. Alba Patricia Valencia
    February 3, 2013

    To me this is the best expression about work, and I believe than companies can produce ball bearings or the knowledge-work equivalents, when all employee accomplish this axiom. Read below, please.


    You say you love me, but sometimes
    you do not show it. In the beginning
    everything was different, you made everything for me.
    Now it seems that you do not take into account …
    Some days I think that do not mean anything to you.

    Maybe when you no longer have me, you will appreciate me
    for all these things I did for you.

    I am responsible for having food on your table
    your clothes clean and well being of your children …
    And of all the things you want and need.
    Well! If not for me you would not even
    have the means to travel. I have kept quiet
    and waiting to see when you would realize
    how much you need me.
    Appreciate me! Care well for me and I also
    I will continue loving you. Remember, I did not look for you,
    you looked for me.

    I do work

    Para mi esta es la mejor expresión de trabajo, y creo que las compañías pueden producir equivalentes del conocimiento del trabajo, cuando este axioma lo cumple todo el personal. Por favor dale lectura el siguiente texto.


    Dices que me quieres, pero hay veces
    que no lo demuestras. En el principio
    todo era distinto, lo hacías todo por mí.
    Ahora parece que ya no me tomas en cuenta…
    Hay días que pienso que no significo nada para ti.

    Tal vez cuando ya no me tengas, me apreciarás
    Por todas esas cosas que hice por ti.

    Soy responsable de tener la comida en tu mesa,
    Tu ropa limpia y el bienestar de tus hijos…
    Y de todas las cosas que quieres y necesitas.
    ¡Bueno! Si no fuera por mí tú ni siquiera
    tendrías para el pasaje. Me he quedado callado
    y esperando para ver cuándo te darás cuenta
    de cuanto me necesitas.
    ¡Apréciame! Cuídame bien y yo también
    seguiré queriéndote. Recuerda: yo no te busqué,
    tú me buscaste a mí.

    Soy tu trabajo

  4. George L. Williams
    February 3, 2013

    Margaret Thatcher is reported to have said something like:

    “There is no circumstance in which a German will not work; and no
    circumstance in which a Russian will work”

    Having grown up as a “Colored” American around German-Americans, I can certainly
    attest to their strong values for “work” — both their own, and whatever they could drive
    out of others.

    As I remember those days and circumstances, there did seem to be some “emotional”
    aspect to the work, but, to this day, I can’t quite put my finger on it.

  5. What Peter Drucker Would Be Reading | The Drucker Exchange | Daily Blog by The Drucker Institute
    February 6, 2013

    [...] Comment of the Week:  Last week, when we asked how a company that produces garage openers or ball bearings can instill a sense of meaning in its [...]


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