Tis the Season: Take Advantage of Summer Vibes to Co-Create Meaningful Experiences

By Nell Derick Debevoise


It’s widely recognized, based on research and our own personal evidence, that experiences – not purchases or raises – are what we value and remember about our lives and work. While of course experiences can and do happen any day of the year, there is something about ‘summer fun’ that lends itself to experiences. But not all experiences are created equal. How can we co-create experiences for our workplaces and/or community that are meaningful, and thus have the potential to be transformative?

By definition, experiences are meaningful to us as individuals. We each take different memories, lessons, and feelings from any one given experience. And, there are ways that leaders can increase the likelihood of meaningful experiences in the World dimension, whether that ‘world’ is a whole organization or a geographically-based or shared-interest community.

What Can Experiences Do For Us As Leaders?

Experience is one of the ways humans learn best. By being directly involved in a project, conversation, or discussion, we understand implicitly at least some elements of what is at stake. Further, in a fast-changing context, there often hasn’t been time to create university-level or even vocational or online programs to teach new insights or techniques. And so doing it, or watch experts do it, is really the only way we can learn some of the most cutting-edge and valuable skills.

For young professionals, career switchers, or anyone in the workforce who’s doing something new or different (in today’s market, pretty much everyone), experience is a critical key to success. Leaders, then, have an interest in co-creating meaningful experiences to facilitate this critical learning for their teams.

Beyond learning, experience can also provide joy and other emotions, deepen relationships, and stimulate empathy. These are all features of highly engaged, collaborative, and productive workplaces.

That said, not all experience is created equal. Let’s consider how leaders can make the most of their investments in experiences at the enterprise or community level.

Elements of Meaningful Experience

As we warned, experiences are personal, and each participant in the same experience will take something different from it. That said, the same experience can be meaningful for many or even most people, if structured correctly. What are those elements of a meaningful experience?

1. Larger than Oneself: The first critical driver of meaning is that the experience is relevant to others, beyond the participant. In other words, a vacation photo contest, coding competition, or sales drive in which people participate or compete as individuals, is not likely to register as meaningful. On the other hand, a team-based hackathon, hunger-fighting BBQ competition, or park clean up, will more likely do so. These latter experiences advance the good of the team or company, or most-powerfully, the needs of a community group. The feeling of contributing to something larger than one’s own success or wellbeing is a key element of meaningful experience.

2. Emotional: Our neurology means that experiences with strong emotions are stickier and more likely to register as meaningful. The emotions evoked can be positive or negative. Challenging, tragic, or overwhelming experiences can be formative over time. As long as they’re not unsafe or traumatic, difficult moments can be memorable and influential to our forward growth.

3. One-Off: Even surgeons, teachers, or actors, who might seem to be doing ‘meaningful’ work all day long, find meaning in one-off, standout events. By definition, the things we do every day become mundane. “Just another life-saving heart surgery,” is what a lot or cardiac surgeons do every day. Experiences may stand out because of a simultaneous event, an unrelated background stimulus, or a specific feature – the first, last, annual, challenging, personally salient, or otherwise, time that someone does something.

4. Reflective: Finally, while some moments jump off the page in real time, many are not made meaningful until we look back over time with the benefit of hindsight. And while we may know that those clichéd headline events – weddings, first days, victories, losses, etc – will be meaningful, we often don’t know why or how they matter until days, months, or years later. This ‘meaning making’ can only happen if we make the space to reflect on what happened and why it matters to us.

How To Co-Create Meaningful Experiences

So, as a leader, consider the experiences you’re inviting your team to have. Whether it’s a strategic planning retreat, a summer fun outing, or a volunteer day, you can increase the likelihood that they each find it meaningful, in their unique way.

1. Why are you here?

First and foremost, make it personal. Be sure that every person has a chance, whether in writing or out loud in the group, to share why they’re participating (before), how it’s going (during), and what they are taking away (after) from the experience. This simple effort will ensure that each individual recognizes their unique form of experience, rather than simply going along with the boss’s plan.

2. Why are we here?

Secondly, connect the dots between what you’re doing and why it matters, to the organization or the broader community. Invite others to expand on these connections. But don’t assume that participants recognize the real significance of what you’re doing – even if it’s a charity event, much less a strategic planning meeting. We are all so busy in our own lives and the details of our specific role, that especially earlier in our careers, it is easy to lose the forest for the trees.

3. How are you feeling?

Don’t shy away from emotions just because it’s a ‘professional’ event. Use language, music, scents, food, physical spaces, and other elements to activate the emotional aspects of the experience, whether positive or negative. By reflecting or stimulating participants’ emotions, you’re increasing the likelihood that the experience will register as a meaningful one, delivering the desired results of learning, relationship-building, and empathy.

4. What’s new?

Do things differently. Hold a strategic planning meeting in a different room than weekly checkins, or at a different time of day. Volunteer for an organization in a different industry than your company. Make some element of the experience new and/or different for participants. Novelty makes our brains pay attention, increasing the likelihood that we’ll remember an experience and assign meaning to it.

5. So what?

Build in time and space for reflection during, immediately after, and much after the event. Simply refer back to what you’re doing or what you did to nudge your team to remember it. Ask specific questions about what they remember or what they took away from the experience. When they ask for help with a challenge, ask if they can see any insights from the experience that could be applied here, directly or metaphorically.

There’s not a single form or feature of a ‘meaningful experience’ to co-create with your team or community. Which means that it is possible to infuse meaning into any experience at all – perhaps one that you’ve already got on the calendar – by integrating these questions and topics. Just don’t let your summer plans go by without making them mean something to all involved. If no one makes meaning from a team retreat, did it really happen?

Share what you do and how it goes. Recalling and analyzing these meaningful – ‘Magic’ – moments is an early step in our leadership development programs, so we love to collect examples! And if you want some guidance in harvesting the full benefit of meaningful experiences for your team, please do get in touch.