The reason why work can seem meaningless

We’ve all sat in meetings where everyone knows that nobody knows what’s actually going on, yet we plough on regardless.  Sometimes though, this sense of meaninglessness can become pervasive in a whole team or department or across an organisation, with the result that whatever energy there is to make things happen is slowly killed.  Why does this happen and what can we do about it?  In this article I’m going to address the question from a cybernetic perspective, building an explanation from first principles that I think is not just insightful but has enormous practical implications.  We’ll use the model to explain what meaning is, how to recognise it, why it’s so important, and what to do if it’s missing.

Firstly, a quick dip into the arcane world of cybernetics – the study of control systems.  Stick with me if this is unfamiliar, it will be worth it!  One of the central tenets of cybernetics is the Conant-Ashby Theorem, which states that “every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system”.  Or in everyday language, to control a system you have to have a model of how it works.

Conant-Ashby theorem - in a picture

You can see this principle play out in organisational life – the structure of the management team reflects the structure of the organisation, the ERP system has modules for each of the enterprise functions, and even as a consultant coming in to do business improvement work, you quickly build a model inside your head of how the business works.

But what does any of this have to do with meaning?

Well, Conant-Ashby is a description of how system regulation works from the outside – look at any system being regulated, and you will find that the regulator reflects the structure of the system.

Meaning, on the other hand, is what Conant-Ashby feels like from the inside – that is, what it feels like to be a model of a system.  Your body is a system, coupled to an environment, and your brain and nervous system provide the regulatory function for your body.  The experience of meaning-making is what it feels like when your brain is doing a good job of modelling you-in-the-world.

Conant Ashby - making sense of the world

This only makes sense once you appreciate that your experience of the world is not directly what you see and hear – what you get is what has been filtered through your mental model.  There has to be a filtering function:  Your brain already accounts for a fifth of your body’s energy consumption, so there simply isn’t enough computing power lying around to process all of your sensory inputs “raw”.  Instead the brain models itself on the environment as it experiences it (most of which happened in infancy), and uses that model to give us our sense of reality.  Most of the time of course, you don’t notice.  What’s real is just what we experience as being real.  The world is as you experience it.  Until, that is, something happens that doesn’t fit.

The feeling of “what does that mean?” tells us that something potentially significant doesn’t (yet) fit our mental models, whereas the feeling of meaning tells us that our mental model and our sensory inputs are in sync.  Why is this feeling so important?  Well according to Conant-Ashby, if the two get too far out of sync, your brain will not be able to regulate your body, and you will slowly cease to be viable as a system.  Which suggests a biological root for why the sense of meaninglessness can be so distressing, and why the sense of meaning-making can be so energising.

Why is this important?

1) Tapping into mental energy

Firstly, it provides motivation for making meaning in our organisations.  Because in doing so, you tap into a biologically programmed reservoir of energy.  This isn’t just a nice philosophical idea; meaning-making is chemically embodied as a reward circuit in the brain, so when you communicate ideas in a way that connects with your audience’s experience, you will energise them.  You will release happy hormones into their brains.  It’s the same energy that drives scientific discovery, the energy that you see everyday in children because they haven’t built their mental model yet so everything is still new and fresh and interesting … and it’s the energy that corporate life does such a great job of destroying:

making sense of the world of work

Or at least, most of the time:  If you’re at a conference, why is it your brain feels so much happier when you’re listening to a speaker who tells stories, uses pictures instead of bullet points on their slides, and describes complex ideas using analogies you can relate to?  It’s because at a very fundamental level your brain is connecting with those ideas and using them to enrich its model of the world; it’s then appreciating the fact that, as a result, the world has become just a little bit more manageable, or in Conant-Ashby terms, the system that is you-in-the-world has become a bit easier to regulate.

Contrariwise, the reason your brain feels frustrated when you’re listening to a speaker who only uses abstract concepts, lists bullet points without giving examples and never uses an analogy, is that it has no way of knowing whether their concepts are significant or not, because they don’t relate to the background of experience from which your mental model is built.  Too much abstraction and your brain gives up – why waste energy on something that doesn’t make sense?

2) Experientialising communication

Secondly, it gives us a big clue about how meaning is to be made.  If your model of the world is built on your experience of being-in-the-world, then meaning can only be made when the concepts being communicated can be connected to your experience.  That’s why pictures usually carry much more immediate meaning for people than words – they’re that much closer to experience.  That’s why we remember stories but forget lectures – because we experience the world as an ongoing narrative.

It also means that if you want to create shared meaning then the way you communicate needs to connect to shared experiences of your audience, not just your own.

3) Making sense of work

Thirdly, it suggests that anything can be made meaningful.  Do you remember how at school the subjects you enjoyed had at least as much to do with the quality of the teachers as they did with the actual subject matter?  If you’re not sure what I mean, google Malcolm Gladwell talking about spaghetti sauce.  In the right hands, anything can become fascinating.

I said in the last post how meaning is a combination of “I get it” and “I care” experienced at the same time.  As far as your brain is concerned, the more you understand something, the better your mental model is, the more manageable the world becomes, and the more likely it is that you should care about it.  But the more you care about something, the more motivated your brain is to seek out information about it.  And so you end up in a virtuous circle of meaning-making and positive energy.

A lot of the “meaning at work” literature talks about how leadership teams should come up with visions and purpose statements that their people will care about.  But something I’ve noticed as a consultant and thus a perennial outsider is that just about any organisation is fascinating once you start to understand how it works and what makes it tick.  In other words, meaning is firstly about “getting it”, and only secondly about caring.  An organisation may have a noble cause that I care deeply about, but if my day-to-day experiences make little sense to me, then no matter how noble the organisational purpose, I’m still going to find my work life pretty meaningless.

Some applications

So, assuming this is all true, what should you do differently as a result?  Well several things.  But a good start would be to find ways of connecting your communication with your audience’s experience of being-in-the-world, rather than just your own.  This applies to all forms of communication – formal communication, reference materials, everyday conversations.  Ask questions to find out how the world shows up for other people, then use those concepts and constructions in your communication with them.  And don’t just stop with bringing the content closer to people’s experience, bring the medium closer as well.  Use pictures, metaphors, analogies, stories, videos, anything that will reconnect your message back to their experience.

Finally, and most provocatively, judge the meaning of your communication not by what it means to you, and not by the nice things people say to you after you’ve finished, but by the level of energy that’s released as a result, either in a shift in body language (if you’re talking to people face-to-face) or in the level of direct activity that follows.  If nothing happens, then did it really mean that much to begin with?

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