Mopping Floors, or Sending a Man to the Moon?

Are your people mopping floors or, as NASA’s janitor believed, sending a man to the moon?

May 2022 | Strategy

You may know the story. It is the early 1960s and John F. Kennedy is set on beating the Soviets in the space race. His aspiration? To land a man on the moon before the decade is out. Lore has it that walking round NASA one day the young President came across a janitor mopping the floor. He asked, ‘Hey! What do you do here?’ Startled, the janitor replied, ‘Well, Mr President, I am helping to send a man to the moon.’

Employee engagement at NASA

The famous janitor (see, for example, Forbes) makes hardly a cameo appearance in the NASA archives. Still, Kennedy did inspire the nation, and a sprawling government agency, to land a man on the moon. The story illustrates how NASA employees – irrespective of role or seniority – rallied round the president’s mission to conquer space.

Agency records from the 1960s – which saw the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programmes – reveal extraordinary levels of commitment to Kennedy’s dream and of (what today we might call) employee engagement. We know the outcome – on 21 July 1969 against all odds Neil Armstrong made that small step that was such a giant leap for mankind.

Purpose, source of inspiration

Once basic needs are met, human beings are motivated toward achievements beyond their immediate self-interest. Call it ‘purpose’: seeking to make life somehow more worthwhile, more meaningful.

We each know how satisfying it can be to ‘make a difference’. Our dreams of riches and power are set against the back-cloth of a world made happier or kinder through our own efforts. People identify with fictional heroes (Harry Potter) and admire real-life champions of good against evil, such as Sir Winston Churchill. We discover joy in helping others through charity or philanthropy.

Meaning in everyday work

Back to work. Routine tasks are often mundane. We sit in rudderless meetings, pore over Excel spreadsheets, or, like NASA’s janitor, mop dusty hallways. Such activities are anything but grand. Everyday activities are limited by money, time and space. Surrounded by colleagues, we often work alone. What we produce rarely changes the world.

A lofty work or business purpose can impart meaning to this daily grind. Meeting frustration becomes a step toward changing lives through technology. Sore eyes from hours at the bank’s laptop are investments in creating the wealth that cures disease. And with aching hands and mop a man helps NASA advance science through exploration of the solar system, which was Kennedy’s purpose.

Purposes stimulates engagement

A single purpose unites individuals and provides a common focus for each person’s activities. This makes for an effective, aligned organisation. When you see a colleague working toward the same goal, you feel part of something bigger than yourself. A meaningful and grand purpose also inspires high performance, through discretionary effort. Excitement about a challenging vision is contagious.

With a clear work purpose, employee engagement rises and people achieve things they did not believe possible. Armstrong, incidentally, doubted that man would ever walk on the moon.

Paradox of inspiration

The grander the purpose, the greater the potential to animate people. And herein lies the paradox. A lofty purpose can inspire extraordinary accomplishments, but is necessarily far removed from mundane work. If people hear about a vision but cannot see how their own efforts contribute to its realisation, they will feel that there is no place for them. Engagement and motivation fall. Performance suffers.

An ambitious purpose, then, brings potential – through an exciting vision people find meaning in sometimes humdrum activities. Equally, there is risk – everyday tasks seem yet more tedious when surrounded by a grand organisational purpose in which people fear they have no role.

Corporate purpose, individual meaning

Some organisations are becoming more adept at setting out a meaningful purpose. Senior managers hold town-halls to explain their vision for a bright, world-changing future. Rallying cries emblazon meeting-room walls, annual reports and e-mail signatures.

This tub-thumping, however, is only the start. Equally important is supporting every colleague (not just ‘managers’) to discover the part he might play. Each person must see in concrete terms how his or her work contributes to the overarching mission. Without these explicit, personal insights into how day-to-day tasks connect with wider business purpose, slogans on the wall will reduce employee engagement and wreck business performance.

If you ask your colleagues what they do at work, will they tell you they are mopping floors? Or helping to send a man to the moon?

Image Ganapathy Kumar​ | Unsplash

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