There’s a Crisis of Meaning in Government Service

Public service is a noble calling. It’s time to connect with that larger purpose.

So many people feel disconnected from their workplace today. Something is missing, they are stressed, unsure of how they fit into the organization’s purpose, irritated by their coworkers’ lack of empathy and trust. They feel they have little control over their work, and are especially frustrated by the “political” whims of their leaders.

Many leaders attempt to address these issues with new programs, such as flextime, incentives, offsite events, and special perks, yet the level of worker satisfaction remains stubbornly low.

It’s time to take a new approach and get to the root cause of these workplace issues: When people feel disconnected from others in the workplace or feel they don’t belong, it’s because there is a lack of meaning. When they lack purpose in their day-to-day tasks, it’s because there is a lack of meaning. When they don’t understand how their work matters to the mission of their organization, it’s because of a lack of meaning. When they feel overwhelmed and drained of energy at the end of the day, it’s because of a lack of meaning.

These are intrinsic, not extrinsic, issues and must be dealt with accordingly. They must be addressed at the individual level first. All leaders must learn how to detect and deal with these issues if they are going to inspire a culture of meaning across their agency. As audacious as it may sound, we are calling for a meaning revolution at all levels of government service.

Only You Can Choose Your Attitude

Many people have dedicated their lives to helping others find meaning. The renowned psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl was one. Author of the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning, his extraordinary personal story of finding meaning amid the horrors of Nazi concentration camps has inspired millions. Frankl believed that the search for meaning is the primary, intrinsic motivation of all human beings and that there is no situation or moment in life that does not contain within it the “seed” of a meaning.

“Everything can be taken from a man but . . . the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way,” Frankl wrote. Put differently, in all situations, no matter how desperate, we always have the ultimate freedom to choose our attitude.

Alex first introduced the work of Frankl as it applies to government in a 2004 article, “The Search for Meaning in Government Service,” in the Public Administration Review. Besides underscoring the need to recognize that working in government is a noble calling, the article explored the various sources of meaning espoused by Frankl and illustrated with personal interviews how employees at all levels of government were able to find meaning in their work even under the most trying and challenging circumstances. In our book Prisoners of Our Thoughts, we explore the human quest for meaning in very practical terms, with an explicit focus on how it influences work and the workplace.

Consider the case of working in government today. (To be clear, we are not comparing the experience of Viktor Frankl in the Nazi death camps with the experience of working in government.) The need to look inward and rely upon forces within ourselves, i.e., intrinsic motivations, can be seen as essential. Here we refer to the authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals (what Frankl referred to as the “will to meaning”) as a foundation for understanding how best to survive—and even thrive—during times of change, hardship, and uncertainty.

True engagement begins with personal meaning—understanding ourselves (our values, interests, talents, and motivations)—before we move onto understanding the meaning of the actual work, including how we contribute to it and what effect the work has on others within the organization and for society as a whole. If we can connect to the deeper meaning within ourselves and the deeper meaning of the work, then we will be more engaged and innovative.

Every organization is a dynamic, social process; it is not a static organizational chart or structure. Great leaders understand the human side of work and, importantly, why meaning must be the foundation for the enterprise. As Dr. Donald Berwick, a healthcare improvement expert and former administrator in charge of the Medicare and Medicaid programs so wisely said, “The leader who thinks that it is enough to create report cards and contingent rewards misses the biggest and hardest opportunity of leadership itself--to help people discover and celebrate the meaning in their work . . . We know that the magic is in the meaning.” Employees, in other words, need leaders who lead with and to meaning, especially through stressful periods of change and turmoil.

When we consider the formidable challenges that government employees face every day, it’s no wonder that they sometimes feel disconnected, frustrated, and overwhelmed. It’s no wonder that they could lose touch with the deeper meaning of their work and how they contribute to shaping the kind of society we all want to see. It’s time to reach out and help public servants recharge by reconnecting with this potential for deeper meaning. It’s time for the meaning revolution in government service.

Alex Pattakos, Ph.D., and Elaine Dundon, MBA, are the founders of the Global Meaning Institute. They are co-authors of Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work and The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work.