Home All Leading with Meaning: Why Exceptional Managers Need CAARMA

Leading with Meaning: Why Exceptional Managers Need CAARMA

written by Nico Rose 4 April 2018

Dr. Nico Rose (MAPP '14) is a professor for organizational psychology at International School of Management (ISM) in Dortmund, Germany. He worked for Bertelsmann, Europe's largest media corporation from 2010 to 2018, most recently as Vice President Employer Branding & Talent Acquisition. For several years, he published Mappalicious, the German side of positive psychology. His book, Arbeit besser machen, was published in 2019. Nico's articles can be found here.

When people think about the meaningfulness of a job, they typically refer to the purpose of the organization. Accordingly, a job at an environmental organization is perceived to be more meaningful than exactly the same set of tasks at a weapon manufacturer. While there is some truth to this reasoning, it only tells part of the story.

Rosso and colleagues identified four predominant drivers of the presence of meaning in one´s work:

  • Contribution, which is related to the above-mentioned idea of positive impact of the organization on the world.
  • Unification, which denotes feelings of belongingness to one´s colleagues and the larger system.
  • Self-connection signifies the process of getting closer to oneself through the job, for example, via working on tasks that play to one´s strengths.
  • Individuation points to the feeling of autonomy and agency within one´s organization

Meaningful Work: The Role of Leadership

Another perspective on this subject is the role leaders play in fostering the experience of meaning in work for their subordinates. In 2017 Michael Steger integrated those determinants of meaning in work that can be influenced by interpersonal leadership. To make his summary memorable, he came up with the acronym CARMA, where leaders should:

  • Provide clarity about organizational goals
  • Be authentic in their roles
  • Be respectful
  • Show employees how their work matters to the overall system
  • Grant autonomy with regard to decision-making whenever possible.

I came upon a preprint of this review and was instantly intrigued by the framework, wondering if it were possible to create a concise survey instrument to assess CARMA in managers from the perspective of their subordinates. Remembering the work by Rosso and colleagues, I decided to extend CARMA by adding a dimension focusing on how well leaders foster self-actualization by shaping the areas of responsibility to reflect the values and strengths of their subordinates. I labeled this element (support for) actualization.

CAARMA: A Preliminary Study

I created a set of 24 questions, 4 to assess the presence of each CAARMA element, asking employees how regularly their supervisors engage in specific behaviors. Here are some sample questions along with their internal consistency measures. For all questions, the same 7-point scale was used: 1 = “hardly ever”, 2, 3, 4 = “some of the time”, 5, 6, 7 = “almost always”.

CAARMA sample items (translated from German)

Quality Sample item Internal consistency
Clarity My manager helps me to understand the goals and strategy of my company ? = .93
Authenticity My manager is an “honest soul” and communicates openly with me and my colleagues ? = .91
Actualization My manager is aware of my strengths and arranges my area of responsibility accordingly. ? = .92
Respect My manager is attentive and perceptive when he/she interacts with me and our team members. ? = .92
Mattering My manager helps me to understand how my efforts contribute to the overall performance of our company ? = .94
Autonomy My manager is the opposite of a micro-manager – he/she only intervenes when it´s absolutely necessary ? = .82

An online survey was accessible in Germany early in 2016 on websites such as LinkedIn. 586 people left usable responses (58% female, 42% male; ~age 39). 75% have at least a bachelor´s degree, 59% have experience being a supervisor themselves. Participants work across all kinds of functions and also several industries, for example, pharma, automotive, consumer goods, banking, and insurance.

Apart from the CAARMA items and demographics, participants provided data for several target variables: experience of meaning and flow at work, pride and satisfaction with regard to their jobs and employer, engagement, and turnover intentions. Each target variable consists of 4 items. Participants provided answers using the same scale as with the CAARMA items (with one exception for “turnover intentions”: 1 = “I´ll probably stay for a couple of years“, 2, 3, 4 = “Currently indecisive”, 5, 6, 7 = “I´ll probably be gone rather soon”). Cronbach´s ? indicating internal consistency for these target dimensions ranges from .82 to .90.

A CAARMA index for participants´ supervisors was created by adding the raw scores of all CAARMA items. Then three sub-groups were calculated:

  • Managers with a CAARMA index of at least 1 standard deviation (SD) below sample average (n = 102)
  • Managers within the range of -/+ 1 SD (n = 352)
  • Managers with a score of at least 1 SD above sample average (n = 132)


The means for the target variables (for example, subordinates´ experience of meaning, flow, retention) were calculated by CAARMA level sub-group. These means are depicted in the charts below.

As can be seen, there is a strong connection between employee perceptions of supervisors´ CAARMA levels and their perceptions of their situation at work. Compared to employees reporting to supervisors with sub-average CAARMA levels, employees who are led by managers with above-average CAARMA levels report +58% more meaning at work, +61% more flow experiences, and +69% more pride at work. Levels for engagement, satisfaction with their overall work situation, and turnover intentions are at +32%, +112%, and -135% (where lower numbers depict higher willingness to stay). All differences between CAARMA levels for the means of the target variables are statistically significant at the .01 level.

While this data is cross-sectional and correlational by nature, the theoretical foundation of the CAARMA dimensions supports the likelihood that there is some causality at work, in such a way that good (vs. bad) leadership behaviors indeed directly effect favorable (vs. unfavorable) employee experiences at work.


Among HR professionals, there´s an old adage that people join an organization because of its image, stay because of their tasks, and leave because of their managers. Excellent leadership is still a scarce resource in many organizations, and the financial and non-financial consequences associated with insufficient leadership quality are enormous.

I contend that having a workforce that is low on feelings of meaning, pride, and satisfaction in work will directly affect an organization´s bottom line in the long-run through lower levels of commitment, citizenship behaviors, and thus, product/service quality, which ultimately affect customer satisfaction and retention. Additionally, a high level of employee turnover will increase costs for recruiting, onboarding, and training as well as the detrimental effects associated with having (too) many unfilled positions.

Furthermore, inadequate leadership quality will lower what Raj Sisodia, author of the highly acclaimed book Firms of Endearment, calls the “psychic income” of employees: their quality of life at work, and via spillover effects, at home.

Regularly measuring leadership quality within their organizations should be of vital interest to executive boards and human resources departments. I hope the easy-to-use CAARMA questionnaire will inspire corporate leaders to take on this challenge and use the information to help their employees experience highly effective leadership.

I would like to thank Michael Steger for his support of this work.



Rose, N., & Steger, M. F (2017): Führung, die Sinn macht: Manager brauchen gutes KAARMA. OrganisationsEntwicklung, 4, 41-45.

Rosso, B. D., Dekas, K. H. & Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review. Research in Organizational Behavior, 30, 91-127.

Sisodia, R., Sheth, J., & Wolfe, D. B. (2014). Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose (2nd Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Steger, M. F. (2017). Creating meaning and purpose at work, in L. G. Oades, M. F. Steger, A. Delle Fave, & J. Passmore (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work , pp. 60-81. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Rose, N. (2014). How to be the architect of your own fortune. TED-x Bergen.

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Editor S.M. 5 April 2018 - 11:27 am

Nico, it’s so good to hear this research of yours. I can’t tell you how much I’ve seen these aspects matter in my executive coaching engagements – clarity, authenticity, respect. Wonderful to see your work. Thank you!

Nico Rose 5 April 2018 - 2:15 pm

Thank you! 🙂

Bob Reuter 5 April 2018 - 12:25 pm

I’d like to think that the evolution of business management into the 21st Century has been progress. But, as I feel this article demonstrates, it has not. I suppose no one knows of or even cares any longer about the people who solved these problems in the mid-29th Century like Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts. It appears that the MAPP program only serves to create a whole new of unnecessary introspection. After such necessities as the military and an MBA I took a job in 1972 with a long term view of meeting my need to maintain my livelihood which would allow me to pursue my ultimate goals. I did not ever feel my employer should provide an answer to my personal needs other than pay for work. I may have said that we have, in particular, forgotten the genuine foundational work of Abraham Maslow whose hierarchy of needs certainly trumps CAARMA. Moving up the Maslow hierarchy we largely called MATURITY which is self-made CAARMA. I feel that Mr. Rose seeks a form of lifelong emotional breastfeeding.

Nico Rose 5 April 2018 - 2:17 pm

Dear Mr. Reuter, thanks for your comment. I feel the data speaks for itself. All the best, NR

Kathryn Britton 5 April 2018 - 6:30 pm

Bob, I worked at a large company long enough to see the culture change from your manager helped you with career development to you own your own career so it’s entirely up to you. To me, that seemed a dumb change. Of course the individual has responsibility for making decisions about the things they can control that affect their career trajectory. But for the company — and managers — to abdicate all responsibility for it and say it’s just up to the individual seemed to me to be failing to invest in company assets. Your point of view seems a bit excessively individualistic, as if nothing mattered by the individual’s own actions.


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