Do you need to build a cathedral to give meaning to your employees’ work?

The pursuit of employee engagement and meaning often centers on the idea of a grand vision, akin to building a cathedral of ambition. However, this narrative oversimplifies the complexity of meaningful work. A fuller understanding recognizes that meaning isn’t derived solely from external goals, but can come from the intrinsic fulfillment found in daily tasks, collaborative efforts, and the intrinsic value of contributions.

The story is well known: a traveler arrives at the construction site of a cathedral. He meets a worker and asks him what he does. “I cut stones,” is the unenthusiastic answer. He asks the same question of a second worker, who replies, “I’m building a wall. Finally, he sees a third worker and asks him the same question. “I’m building a cathedral!” the man answers enthusiastically. This story is an urban legend. It has become a reference for all motivational programs and is used by many coaches. It is also recalled by the neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik, who writes: “The meaningless pebble subjects the unhappy to reality, to the immediacy that gives nothing else to understand but the weight of the hammer and the suffering of the blow. While he who has a cathedral in his mind transfigures the pebble, he experiences a feeling of exaltation and beauty provoked by the image of the cathedral of which he is already proud”. Amen.

The idea that there is nothing between the pebble and the cathedral is strange. That the pebble is meaningless is obvious; but it is not the pebble that is at issue here; it is man’s work on the pebble. A workman may, of course, experience “a feeling of elevation and beauty evoked by the image of the cathedral of which he is already proud,” but is this necessary for him to give meaning to his work? Nothing is less certain, for why shouldn’t this work have meaning in itself? Why should the meaning of our work necessarily come from outside, as a kind of supplement to the soul? This meaning may well come from the work itself: the pleasure of the gesture, the satisfaction of successfully cutting the stone, of making progress day by day, of mastering a complex technique, of being recognized by colleagues or clients for the quality of one’s work, the pleasure of working in a team and seeing it work and achieve a collective result so small that it is judged by the clergy. I myself have often experienced this indefinable feeling of great satisfaction in otherwise rather prosaic tasks. And so, between the meaningless pebble and the cathedral that can provide one, lies the work that, by its very nature, provides one. So man is not condemned to choose between the misery of the pebble and the exaltation of the cathedral.

It’s not the only way to motivate people (Source: Wikipedia)

There is a second problematic dimension to the fable of the cathedral. It is that we are obviously talking about a cathedral, not a bakery or a sewer. Imagine that it ends with a workman proudly saying: “I, sir, am building a sewer!” It would probably fall flat. You can’t be proud of building a sewer, can you? The fable works because we implicitly have a hierarchy of values that places a cathedral very high above other buildings, especially those in the so-called “material” world like a bakery, or even worse, sewers or urinals. There is a dirty little mental model underlying a hierarchy of values: building a cathedral is nobler than building a bakery, and this is because the spiritual is superior to the material. More than that, the commercial and material world can in no way be spiritual; it is therefore morally inferior. However, the mental model that separates and classifies the two is only a mental model, i.e., a belief. The commercial and “material” world is very spiritual indeed, as Adam Smith observed 250 years ago. What the fable, with its air of false obviousness, tries to impose on us is a hierarchical and moralizing view of the world. It is a vision inherited from the ancient past, a regime of order and caste, of the noble and the ignoble. The unfortunate worker would be subject to reality, but is that worse than being subject to the unreal, assuming that he is subject to anything?  

The third problematic dimension of this fable is that one can work on the construction of a cathedral and still be miserable, especially if the working conditions are bad. It is unlikely that the slaves who built the Pont du Gard, one of the wonders of the world built by the Romans, experienced “a sense of exaltation and beauty” in their work, and if it had been a religious building, it wouldn’t have changed their misery. Conversely, Morning Star, the company cited by Frédéric Laloux in his book Reinventing Organizations as a model of high employee engagement and job satisfaction, produces … tomato paste. You can be a stonemason, or even a pebbler, or you can be a happy and fulfilled tomato paste producer, with work that has real meaning, without having a cathedral in mind.  

Meaningful work

While noble causes and ambitious projects can inspire some, it’s important to recognize that meaningful work goes beyond grand visions. Employees find value in mastering skills, collaborating effectively, and achieving tangible results, regardless of the perceived nature of the project. Recognizing the multifaceted nature of motivation allows HR teams to tailor strategies that resonate with individual employees. Rather than focusing solely on grand narratives, organizations can create environments where diverse motivations are recognized and celebrated, ultimately fostering a more engaged and fulfilled workforce.

🇫🇷 French version of this article here.

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