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 at Wharton about his research and what it means for business leaders today.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at Wharton: What surprised you the most?

Carton: I think there were a few surprises, and they mostly revolved around the specific communication tactics that leaders used to help employees see that connection. It’s pretty well known at this point that articulating a common goal or a common purpose has powerful implications, especially for groups, collectives and organizations, because it galvanizes collective energy. It gives people a common cause that they can all rally around. It coalesces their energy and effort and can build what are called social contagion effects, where one person’s excitement spreads to another person. It also is a boon for coordination because it gives us a sense of what we’re trying to achieve as an organization.

But what I also found interesting was that President [John F.] Kennedy’s ability to articulate a common purpose was highly useful for individuals working alone because it allowed them to get a better sense of how their work connected to the organization’s ultimate aims. Again, drawing from cognitive psychology, the reason is fairly straightforward when you think about it. A lot of times we might look down the hall at what our colleagues are doing, or maybe we are working with somebody across the country on the same project. What we’ll often do is look to see what other people are doing and piece together what they’re doing vis-à-vis what I’m doing. When it turns out that, without exception, every time I look to what my coworker is doing I recognize that they are channeling their effort toward the same end goal that I am, then I get a sense that there’s this broader puzzle and we’re all working on a critical piece of that puzzle; I’m working on a small piece, but an irreplaceable and essential piece of that puzzle. And I can see how it fits in within this broader organizational system. Because of that, I can see how my work connects to the organization’s aims.

Even if you just have two organizational purposes, this starts to break down because oftentimes we’ll look to what our coworkers and colleagues are doing, and we won’t do that process of disentangling what we’re doing relative to them and then putting it back together, seeing this puzzle. This puzzle metaphor was used by some NASA employees as an illustration of how they made sense of their work. The surprise here is that articulating a common goal was not just effective for galvanizing collective energy, but also for helping individuals see how their work connected to the organization’s aims.

Initially NASA had three overarching missions: to establish superior technology in space, to establish preeminence in space relative to the Soviet Union, and to advance science by exploring the solar system. NASA was founded in 1958; Kennedy became president in the early 1960s. He decided on his own to restrict all of NASA’s attention just to that third ultimate aspiration of advancing science by exploring the solar system. Of course, we all know what he did after that — he made an announcement to Congress in one of the most famous speeches to date in which he talked about how we’re going to refocus our energy on a specific incarnation of that broader goal, which is to land a man on the moon before the decade is out and return him safely to earth.

“People didn’t lose sight of what they were ultimately trying to achieve, so they continued to be invigorated by it.”

Knowledge at Wharton: If you had to distill this down to some key takeaways for leaders, what would you say?

Carton: One is, as I just mentioned, the criticality of articulating a common goal, not just to galvanize collective energy but also to help people build a connection between their work and the organization’s highest aims. Another critical piece of the puzzle is, again, always keeping in mind the importance of not only selling a grand vision but also helping people see a connection between their work and that vision, the usage of subgoals. Kennedy had a very unique way of using subgoals. It was pretty surprising.

Usually subgoals are thought of as ways to break down a broader goal that could be daunting or intimidating or [too large in] scale … into smaller, bite-sized pieces and to focus on each increment one at a time in piecemeal fashion. Kennedy took a completely different approach. Rather than thinking about having subgoals be a way to divert your attention away from this broader goal and just focus on one bit at a time, he thought of subgoals as a way to let people focus even more of their attention and effort on the ultimate goal — in this case, the goal of landing on the moon. He did this by upending conventional wisdom. At that time — and even to date — most people tended to think of subgoals as being better as they increased in number: A great number of subgoals is good, because it allows us to monitor our progress more effectively. It makes the problems that we’re tackling more manageable.

Kennedy took the opposite approach. He articulated at first just three subgoals: to put a person into orbit, to perform rendezvous and docking missions in space, and then to ultimately reach lunar orbit prior to landing on the moon. These subgoals ended up being the objectives of the three space programs. First the Mercury program in the early 1960s, then the Gemini program in the mid-1960s, then the Apollo program in the late 1960s.

What happened was that employees saw a plausible path to the goal of landing on the moon. At first they thought it was impossible. Even Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, in the early 1960s said that he thought this was an impossible goal and they would never achieve it. So, it helped them realize or at least think that the goal was plausibly achievable. But it was simple enough of a pathway that they didn’t get completely diverted away from the goal of landing on the moon. It remained in the forefront of their minds and retained its motivational power. People didn’t lose sight of what they were ultimately trying to achieve, so they continued to be invigorated by it.

Setting subgoals is [something we all do]. We do it at work; we do it oftentimes in our own lives. For example, let’s say I’m trying to run a marathon. I’m going to set a series of incremental goals, a number of miles that I’ll run each week. But this is a very different way of thinking about the usage of subgoals: It’s to pave the path to focus our intention on the end goal rather than to divert our attention away from it.

Knowledge at Wharton: Seems like a vast area to study. Are you working on anything that’s related to this?

Carton: I have a concurrent line of research that speaks to an exercise that Kennedy engaged in that was also quite effective, which is translating the abstract mission of advancing science by exploring the solar system into this concrete, time-limited goal of landing a man on the moon before the decade is out. That kind of twist where leaders focus on redirecting their attention and everyone’s attention from an abstract, overarching mission to a more concrete instantiation of the mission is extraordinarily difficult.

“Articulating a common goal was not just effective for galvanizing collective energy, but also for helping individuals see how their work connected to the organization’s aims.”

In my research, I found that a vast majority of leaders don’t do that. They tend to communicate abstractly. This is very useful because it makes people feel as if the goal that they’re striving to achieve is closer. It’s more proximal in time because it’s going to occur at some point. In this case of the moon, it was a tangible, palpable goal. It was a concrete goal. You could walk outside of your door at night and look in the night sky and see the moon. But this kind of transformation of an abstract principle into a concrete manifestation in reality is extraordinarily difficult.

I have a line of research that can help identify what we call a nudge, which is just tweaking the way that we tend to think about the goals so that our first instinct is to articulate a concrete, organizational objective that we can all rally around rather than an abstract general principle. One caveat, though — and this is something else that Kennedy did remarkably well: He focused everybody’s attention on a concrete goal, but it was a concrete goal that retained a sense of gravity and challenge and ambition that could then allow people to cast it as a symbol that embodied the organization’s ultimate grand abstract ideals. In this sense, people didn’t think that they were just striving to land on the moon. They also felt like just by landing on the moon, they actually were realizing these abstract ideals.

Kennedy very carefully crafted his rhetoric to make people feel this way. He would talk about abstract principles as if they existed in the physical world. For example, he would say, “We want to go to the moon because knowledge and peace are there.” If you think about the literal phrasing of it, it’s pretty fascinating. Knowledge and peace are on the moon? It’s something that is impossible, an abstract idea existing in a physical location. But what it did when he and other NASA leaders continually reinforced the idea that these two concepts were inextricably linked, the physical and the abstract, it allowed them to cast the moon as a symbol of what they were trying to achieve in the abstract sense, rather than just an impressive physical feat of engineering.

Think about one of the most famous one-liners of all time — Neil Armstrong talking about one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Right there, he’s actually connecting one very trivial human action of just taking one step to this broader idea of advancing science. That’s the twist: getting leaders to articulate more concrete objectives, without those objectives losing the gravitas that allows them to be reconstrued as representations or embodiments or vessels that carry the organization’s ultimate aspirations.