How Do You Make Meaning?

This blog picks up where the blog of 4 February 2016 left off.

OK. How do you make meaning? First things first. Let’s define our terms. When I use the term meaning in this definition of leadership I refer to a clear framework for interpreting, predicting, and controlling experience. It is a context for coordinating experiences so that these experiences relate to one another and become a whole. This is the sense in which we make meaning by constructing our experience.

In broader terms, such a framework also allows an individual to understand self and understand how self is related to others. Additionally, individuals may begin to interpret and understand their relationship to some group, and allow the group to be understood in its relationship to an even larger context.

This sense of meaning is all about unity, connection, relationship, and understanding. In this context, a job is meaningful when the person who does the job understands how the work fits in with other work and contributes to something larger. This understanding allows the person to interpret his or her experience as: “What I do has status and is important. Others depend on me as I depend on them. Together we are doing something larger than any of us could do alone.”

I suggest that this can be accomplished in at least four ways: system design, interpretation, narrative, and dialogue.

System design: systems provide reason by relating individuals to a larger entity. Performing a task in relation to a larger task is an example of acting within a framework for understanding self and self in relation to others. So, in an organizational system in which work is divided into smaller component tasks, the structure of meaning is the framework of interrelated tasks.

Interpretation: The act of interpreting events or circumstances within a collective experience is an act of leadership. Through interpretations, a framework for understanding events, behaviors, and feelings is produced. Events may be related to underlying values. Included in interpretation are various forms of meaning making such as vision, problem identification, and strategic analysis. The strength of such leadership must be measured in terms of the effectiveness and value of the understanding provided, and the extent to which the collective is joined together by the interpretation.

Narrative: Narrative or story telling provide frameworks of unity and reason in organizations. Narrative gives structure to events and actions and makes them meaningful by showing connection and intention.

Dialogue: Dialogue is a method for guiding inquiry and learning in organizations. Dialogue when used properly results in a free flowing of ideas within a group that produces ideas not usually achievable by individual thought alone. Dialogue requires a willingness to examine assumptions and a noncompetitive environment and may not be as useful a meaning making process in many hierarchically structured organizations. Yet dialogue is a process of making meaning in a collective experience and is possibly a formidable process of leadership.

The bottom line question becomes “What is effective leadership?”
That’s a great question for Thursday, 18 February.

-Richard

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