Finding Purpose in The Printer’s Shop

Excerpt from The Search for Meaning at Work: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Purpose to Engage and Fulfill Your Workforce by Steve Van Valin, SVP of Culture Transformation

A watershed moment in my thinking about meaning and purpose came a number of years ago in one of my Progress Principle workshops. We were discussing how to make work more meaningful when the CEO of a printing company asked a very important question. 

She asked, “Most of my people work all day on collating machines making advertising supplements for the newspaper. How is it possible to give that type of work meaning?” I quickly asked the group what they thought (to admittedly give myself time to think of a clever answer).

One person suggested explaining to workers that the supplements helped newspaper readers save money. Someone else recommended telling the workers how much revenue the supplements generated for the printing firm.

All good suggestions, but I knew that they weren’t good enough based on the unsatisfied look on her face. 

I asked, “how long have they worked there?” She said, “all of them have been with us for over 20 years.” I probed some more for the reason they would be so loyal doing such a menial job. 

I saw her face light up when she made the connection. They were working almost in a self-sacrificial way for their families. That was the purpose that gave them meaning: to give their families a better life. 

She immediately seemed relieved seeing her opportunity to amplify the family connection for these hardworking, loyal workers. Her game plan was to talk to them more about their kids and the things they were proud to describe about their family. To fully understand what their paycheck truly meant to them was a game changer for her. It gave her an entirely new, empathetic approach for amplifying meaning. Now, she would communicate everything through the positive filter of their family perspective first. What a powerful connection.

She was feeling what Amabile and Kramer delineated. Meaningful work depended on contributing value to someone important — and that someone important wasn’t necessarily just the company nor the customer. It was family.

This event caused me to think more broadly about the sources of purpose and meaning, and to begin analyzing new, creative possibilities that were playing out in people’s lives at work.