Finding Meaning at Work: An Interview with Danny Gutknecht

Many if not most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work or at least thinking about it. As I write in Message Not Received, the very tools that were supposed to unshackle us from the office often do the very opposite. What’s more, this trend shows no signs of abating. Many Europeans attain a far better work-life balance than we Americans do. Brass tacks: Work is how many of define ourselves, but I don’t know too many people who truly feel fulfilled while on the clock.

To this end, I recently sat down with Danny Gutknecht, CEO and Co-founder of Pathways, an advisory firm that helps organizations tap their potential through its people strategies. His new book is Meaning at Work: And Its Hidden Language. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.

PS: What was your motivation for writing the book?

DG: I’ve been writing this book all my life. It started with my personal journey and curiosity over what self-actualization and human potential were all about. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I bumped into the recruiting industry I noticed that if you really probe, there are lots of people who want to do better than their work situations allow. I wondered how to tap their potential. So I pursued every bit of information I could, but more importantly, I began implementing the concepts I learned in very a practical ways in my organization. I discovered that organizational culture and human potential go hand in hand—that both the individual and the organization can benefit from learning how meaning works and what they can do to integrate it.

PS: Many books address the topic of meaning at work. How is yours different?

DG: Meaning At Work gives people the right models and tools to understand and deal with meaning on their own terms. I couldn’t find any other books that put it all together so that people could understand what it is and how it works. You have to have personal experiences of uncovering your own meaning before you can transform an organization. Meaning is subjective to every individual and entity—there’s no authority that has an answer for you. Models and processes are the tools that liberate meaning in the workplace. Until you expose and channel meaning, you won’t get to potential and uniqueness.

PS: You write in the book: “What do I believe matters most to the organization—and is there a connection between that and the tasks I do each day?” Can you elaborate on that?

DG: Meaning is personal to each person and each entity on their journey. You have to discover what it is that fulfills you enough to struggle for it. Then you have to find organizations and groups that share the same meaning. Once you find this alignment, time doesn’t matter anymore—you can immerse yourself in what you’re doing just for the sake of doing it. You will see how your contribution benefits the whole organization. The organization can’t provide meaning, but it has to expose it and then unapologetically step into it, share it with employees and let them steward it. Doing so will attract and engage the right people. You may not need as many immersed, committed people as you think to grow or expand your market presence. In fact, that is almost always the case.

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PS: You also discuss the importance of embedding questions around meaning. Why is this so important?

DG: Too many people only consider what it is that’s really meaningful to them when they experience life’s big events—times of death, birth, marriage or when traumatic events occur. These situations provide obvious opportunities to examine what’s meaningful, but they are also influenced by emotions surrounding the events. We tell people not to make big decisions around events like these. When we address meaning, frequently we bring it into a daily context where we can begin to be more aware of our choices, focusing on what matters most in daily decision making. Too often we think it’s the big choices in life that act as catalysts for creating the life we want. But we discover meaning by examining everything we do, why we do it and how we believe it should be done. And where does meaning come from? Society? Culture? Or ourselves?

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