Finding Meaning and Motivation in Work

Consider the following story of a meeting with interns led by a senior partner at a large accounting firm. Does it ring true for you?

“The partner concluded the meeting by recounting the parable of three bricklayers who were rebuilding a church after it had been damaged by fire:

The construction architect observed the three workers on a scaffold, and asked “What are you doing?” to which the first bricklayer replied, “I’m laying bricks.” The second responded, “I’m repairing a wall.” But the third replied, “I’m building a cathedral to The Almighty.”

“So,” our partner asked the crowd, “Do you want to be bricklayers or cathedral builders?” After her presentation, a crowd of enthusiastic interns surrounded her and more than a hundred emails followed, all with the same clarion message: “I want to be a cathedral builder.”

KPMG, a member of the Positive Organizations Consortium, is among the best companies in helping their employees connect meaning and purpose to their work. When people ask me how best to infuse purpose and meaning throughout their organization, I often point them to KPMG.

 “Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it,” wrote Stephen Hawking. Both the cathedral-building story and Hawking’s assertion are consistent with a growing recognition in business that purpose matters when it comes to engagement and performance. This is supported by a body of research into “prosocial motivation”: the energized feeling you get when you believe that your work makes somebody else’s life better.
Yet it may be possible the pendulum may be swinging too far in one direction. It is important and effective to connect day to day work to noble, grander aspirations, as well as to the impact it has on beneficiaries. At the same time, many people also take a lot of satisfaction from laying that one brick just right. Our joy can come from both the destination and the journey.
To achieve sustained excellence in organizations, we need to take pride both in the higher purpose of our work, and in the care with which we achieve it. In psychology, having a sense of progress toward worthwhile outcomes has long been recognized as a key factor in motivation and performance. More recently, that sense of accomplishment has been recognized as a key predictor of flourishing as human beings.
What that engagement looks like may vary for each of us, and may differ depending on the task at hand. Perhaps it is being truly present to a patient in need at your hospital; getting financial records perfectly reconciled; leading an energizing team meeting; writing one tweet that connects with your followers; or replying to a customer complaint in a thoughtful, caring manner.
Or maybe it is simply laying that one brick perfectly, knowing it will serve its purpose for years to come.

Chris White (@leadpositivelyleadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business (@MichiganRoss). The Center is the convener of the Consortium of Positive Organizations, a catalytic co-learning community of leaders actively building high-performing organizations where people thrive.