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

Our era is in search of meaning; at least that is what we hear over and over again in companies and in society as a whole. The absence of meaning leads to disengagement, and the human resources departments of large companies are engaged in a great race to “recreate meaning” under the leadership of visionary leaders. The idea is that an ambitious vision, a noble purpose, a great narrative, will give meaning to wandering souls. This idea is illustrated by a famous tale, that of the stonemason who builds a cathedral, motivated by something greater than himself. However attractive it may be, this tale plays on questionable beliefs, and the fact that it has become a reference for motivational seminars is regrettable. In fact, it is not necessary to build a cathedral to give meaning to one’s work.

The tale is well known: a traveler arrives on the building site of a cathedral. He meets a worker and asks him what he is doing. “I’m cutting stones” is the answer, without enthusiasm. He asks the same question to a second worker who replies “I’m building a wall”. Finally, he sees a third worker and asks him the question. “I’m building a cathedral! answers the man enthusiastically. This tale is an urban legend. It has become a reference for all motivational programs and is used by many coaches. It is also evoked by the neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik in his book Parler d’amour au bord du gouffre (Talking about love on the brink of the abyss), who comments it as follows: “The meaningless pebble subjects the unfortunate to reality, to the immediacy that gives nothing else to understand than the weight of the mallet and the suffering of the blow. While the one who has a cathedral in his head transfigures the pebble, he experiences a feeling of elevation and beauty provoked by the image of the cathedral of which he is already proud.” Amen.

An unreal dualism

The idea that there is nothing between the stone and the cathedral is strange. That the pebble is devoid of meaning is obvious; but it is not the pebble that is at issue here, it is man’s work on the pebble. A worker can obviously experience “a feeling of elevation and beauty that is provoked by the image of the cathedral of which he is already proud,” but is that 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 can perfectly come from the work itself: the pleasure of the gesture, the satisfaction of succeeding in cutting the stone, of making progress day by day, of mastering a complex technique, of being recognized by one’s peers or clients for the quality of one’s work, the pleasure of working within a team and of seeing it work and accomplish a collective result, so lowly that it is judged by the clerisy. I myself have often experienced this indefinable feeling of great satisfaction in otherwise quite prosaic tasks. And so, between the meaningless pebble and the cathedral that can provide one lies the work that provides one by its very nature. Man is therefore 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)

An anti-humanist hierarchy of values

There is a second problematic dimension in the fable of the cathedral. It is that obviously we are talking about a cathedral, not a bakery or a sewer. Imagine that it ends with a worker proudly saying: “I, Sir, am building a sewer!” It would probably fall flat. You can’t be proud to build a sewer, can you? The fable works because implicitly, we 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. The mental model which separates the two, and which ranks them, is, however, only a mental model, i.e. a belief. The commercial and “material” world is very spiritual indeed, as Adam Smith observed 250 years ago. With its air of false obviousness, what the fable is trying to impose on us is a hierarchical and moralizing way of seeing the world. It is a vision inherited from the old past, a regime of order and castes, of nobles and ignoble. The unfortunate worker would be subject to reality, but is it worse than being subject to the unreal, assuming that he is subject to something?

Misery of the Cathedral Builder

The third problematic dimension of this fable is that one can work on the construction of a cathedral and yet be miserable, especially if the working conditions are bad. It’s 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 elevation and beauty” in their work, and if it had been a religious building, it would not have changed their misery. Conversely, Morning Star, the company cited as an example by Frédéric Laloux in his book Reinventing organizations as a model where employee engagement and job satisfaction are very high, produces… tomato paste. One can be a stonemason, or even a pebble breaker, or a happy and fulfilled tomato paste producer, with work that has real meaning, without having a cathedral in mind.

This is not to say that we should never mobilize people on an ambitious project, on something that is beyond them. There are of course cases where the cathedral can be a vector of ambition, like in war. Without doubt, having “a cathedral in the head transfigures the stone”, but it is false to say that only the objective of the cathedral gives meaning to the work on the stone or that this transfiguration is necessary to create meaning. Not everyone is motivated by the same thing. Some will join an organization because of its noble purpose. You get involved with a local charity distributing meals to hungry people because it makes sense to you; it’s your cathedral. Others will flourish in a sales team where there is strong emulation and where obtaining a contract brings joy and pride, without the product or service being considered to have any metaphysical value. The legions of human resources managers who are struggling to create a noble purpose, a cathedral, thinking that this will solve the problem of disengagement of their employees, must expect cruel disillusionment.

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