Wharton’s Andrew Carton discusses how NASA employees found meaning at work during the 1960s.

The title of Wharton management professor Andrew Carton’s latest research is playful. But there is an important lesson to be learned from his paper, “I’m Not Mopping the Floors, I’m Putting a Man on the Moon: How NASA Leaders Enhanced the Meaningfulness of Work by Changing the Meaning of Work” (forthcoming in Administrative Science Quarterly). Carton analyzed reams of NASA documents from the 1960s to understand how thousands of employees with vastly different roles were able to rally around the common goal of a lunar landing. He found part of the answer in the persuasive rhetoric of President John F. Kennedy. Carton talked with Knowledge@Wharton about his research and what it means for business leaders today.

NASA
WikiImages / Pixabay
NASA

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What led you to study meaningfulness of work?

Andrew Carton: I had a long-standing interest in the problem of how leaders tend to communicate about the organization’s ultimate goals. It is a well subscribed view at this point that one of the most inexpensive and effective ways that leaders can motivate employees is by articulating a compelling depiction of where the organization is ultimately trying to go. Yet the empirical evidence on that particular tactic is actually surprisingly mixed. On some occasions it has worked quite well; it’s yielded the expected results. It has motivated employees, led them to transcendent achievements that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to attain. But in other contexts it hasn’t had that intended effect. In fact, sometimes it has backfired because employees oftentimes will hear lofty rhetoric that’s used by leaders and will think to themselves that the work I’m doing right now doesn’t seem to be very aligned or connected to these grand conquests that you are saying it serves. It ends up leading to a form of cynicism and pessimism and can end up demotivating them.

I became interested in what was going on with this rhetorical tactic that we would expect to work effectively, yet wasn’t working effectively — or at least as consistently as we would think. I started to probe the literature in this area a bit more, and it dawned on me that it could relate to a fairly interesting paradox that ties to cognitive psychological findings specifically if you think the type of work that most people do every day tends to be fairly circumscribed and clearly defined, concrete, small in scale. It usually is very time constrained and time limited. You might have something to do by 5 p.m. or by 11 p.m., a deadline or something by the end of the week. It also tends to be done in small groups or by people working alone.

Yet the types of purposes, the types of organizational missions that people find most inspiring tend to be quite grand in scale. They tend to be timeless or set on an indefinite time scale. They tend to be quite abstract in the sense that they focus on the essential merits of what the organization is trying to achieve, rather than any specific concrete situation that an employee might find him or herself in. For example, one company has the vision of becoming the world’s most customer-centric company. Another company — a health care company — has a vision of spreading care, compassion and well-being across the world. These visions are very grand in scale. And they’re lofty. And they’re timeless. But they don’t have a clear connection to the type of work that I do every day. What really struck me was this paradox that as a purpose and as a mission becomes inherently more meaningful, it starts to feel more disconnected from the kind of work that I do every day as an employee in a given organization.

“Even people who were quite far removed from the famous goal of landing a man on the moon reported feeling an incredible connection to this ultimate goal.”

That’s when I decided to delve into this case at NASA [in the 1960s], where there were many reports of employees who said during that period in their lives they were involved in more meaningful work than they had ever experienced before and would ever experience again.

Knowledge@Wharton: Regardless of what they were doing?

Carton: Yes. It’s interesting because even people who were quite far removed from the famous goal of landing a man on the moon reported feeling an incredible connection to this ultimate goal and would often define their everyday work in terms of that ultimate goal. Rather than talking about, “I’m fixing electrical wiring” or “I’m stitching space suits” or “I’m mopping the floors,” they would actually identify their work as, “I’m putting a man on the moon.” It was a strikingly unique period of time where many people — this is a 400,000-person organization — across the entire organization had these kinds of perceptions.

It was also a period where there was a lot of very rich information that was available in terms of leader communication tactics and how employees were experiencing their work, a lot of internal memos and documents that allowed me to dive in to get a really rich sense of what was going on.

Knowledge@Wharton: So it was an inductive study?

Carton: It was an inductive study in the sense that most research that we do here at Wharton and that I do involves crafting a set of hypotheses and then collecting data to test them. This was diving into a rich, very detailed analysis of a single case and then trying to get a sense of what some key relationships are between how leaders communicated about the organization’s ultimate purpose and how employees perceived their work. It’s a little bit of a departure from the norm, at least from the type of research that’s done around here. But it allows you to get a rich sense of the process and how employees’ perceptions shift across time.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you dove into all this information, what did you find?

Carton: The conventional wisdom around how leaders should orient themselves when communicating about the organization’s ultimate goals is that they should be visionaries. They should paint a grand picture of what it is that we’re all trying to achieve, this destination that we’re all trying to reach. What I found is that it’s absolutely critical that leaders do depict a compelling picture of where ultimately we want to go. But just as important — and also more time consuming and requiring even more investment — is that they communicate about how each employee in the organization can get a sense of how their work connects to the organization’s mission or vision. That process of connection-building took more steps and was more time intensive and more complex than the process of just selling somebody about the importance and beauty of this ultimate goal that we’re trying to achieve together. In some sense, that was the easy part. The hard part is helping people see a connection between their work and the organization’s mission.

Knowledge@Wharton: What surprised you the most?

Carton: I think there

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