“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, by Andrew Carton


What can leaders do to help employees see the connection between their daily work, which for many of us, let’s be honest, can often be a tad mundane, and the organisation’s Big Picture? This is the interesting question that Andrew Carton set out to answer in his recent article.

Many people studying meaningful work, myself included, use the example from NASA that features in the title of the article, but Carton went a stage further and actually dug back through NASA’s archives from the 1960s to examine how John F Kennedy influenced NASA employees’ understanding of the link between their work, and putting a man on the moon. In the process, he unearthed the paradoxical finding that leaders’ efforts to articulate organisational aspirations can sometimes actually undermine employees’ ability to see the connections.

Carton studied hundreds of pages of documentary evidence, and found that Kennedy used four techniques, or ‘sensegiving actions’:

  1. Reduced the number of abstract organisational aspirations to just one: ‘to advance science by exploring the solar system’. Having more made it too complex for people to see the links.
  2. Shifted attention from this abstract aspiration to a concrete objective. On 25th May 1961 Kennedy said, ‘this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth’.
  3. Communicated milestones connecting employees’ day-to-day work with the concrete objective. Kennedy established just three milestones that showed how the overall objective would be achieved: project Mercury, with the goal of putting a person in earth’s orbit; project Gemini to perform docking in space; and project Apollo to build the remaining capabilities needed to land on the moon.
  4. Used rhetorical techniques to link NASA’s organisational aspiration to the more concrete objective of putting a man on the moon. By using metaphors and analogies, such as ‘space is there, we’re going to climb it’, Kennedy was able to mesh the two together in people’s minds, making them more attainable.

But how did employees assimilate these four techniques and become more aware of how their work linked to NASA’s aims and objectives?  Carton’s research uncovered five stages of connection-building:

  1. As Kennedy shifted attention from the abstract aspiration to the concrete objective, employees felt that the goal was closer and more attainable. Unfortunately, this also led to a decreased sense of meaningfulness as people became aware of just how difficult the goal would be to achieve, and questioned whether it was worthwhile or meaningful.
  2. Stepping stones. The idea of the ‘three milestones’ meant that the overwhelming complexity of the project became more manageable in people’s minds, and this began to increase a sense of meaningfulness.
  3. Clarity of individual contribution. Each employee had to build their own understanding of how their work was part of the broader whole that would achieve NASA’s objective.
  4. Reconstruing day-to-day work as the organisation’s objective. When employees saw how their work contributed to the overall objective, they changed from seeing their work as a series of low-level tasks to seeing it as part of the wider effort to put a man on the moon.
  5. Reconstruing day-to-day work as a symbol of the organisation’s aspiration. As time went by, employees began to see the moon landing as symbolic of NASA’s mission of advancing science. At this point, a real sense of meaningfulness was achieved.

Carton’s analysis shows that leaders need to spend more time as ‘architects’, creating a blueprint that enables employees to create the connections between the overall aims of the organisation and their day-to-day work activities, than as ‘visionaries’ who just showcase the organisational vision. Paradoxically, he argues that leaders need to shift employees’ attention away from an abstract organisational ideal towards a concrete objective which carries less meaning, as this will cause them to re-frame their perspective and, in the longer term, help them to craft a profound sense of the meaningfulness of their work.

Can the findings from an organisation like NASA that had such an obviously aspirational goal provide useful lessons for ‘ordinary’ organisations? Carton believes they can.  First, he argues that organisations need to focus on a single overarching aim or objective, rather than a large number. Second, he suggests that using visual techniques to help employees see milestones in a tangible way can help achieve a sense of progress and purpose. Third, he suggests using a symbol to represent the organisation’s over-arching aspiration.

Carton’s article helps to shed light on the complex social and psychological processes by which individual employees are able to build a sense of meaningfulness from their organisation’s aspirations. One issue that is not considered, though, is that of authenticity. Elsewhere, I’ve talked about the ethical responsibilities of seeking to manage employees’ sense of what is meaningful, and it is essential that these are taken seriously by leaders.

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