Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Why Put Meaning First?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Alex Pattakos
September 28, 2019

Previously in this column I shared the view that government service is at a crossroads, one characterized by a crisis of meaning rather than by a crisis of competence per se. I proposed that in order to rediscover the soul of government it is necessary to focus upon the primary, intrinsic motivation of human beings — the search for meaning. By putting meaning first, government service will be able to regain its proper standing as a noble calling. In this way it will be able to recruit and retain individuals with an authentic public service ethic and increase the citizenry’s trust and confidence in public institutions. Importantly, the return on investment from putting meaning first includes higher levels of engagement among employees and citizens, healthier government workplaces, increases in individual and organizational performance and advances in public sector innovation.

According to my experience and research, there are several key benefits that result from putting meaning first:

  • Engagement & Resilience

To be engaged means to be connected to a certain activity, to the people who surround you, or more metaphysically, to your true nature or core essence. Conversely, to be disengaged means to be disconnected from the activity, other people or your true nature.

In many workplaces, including those in government, leaders complain that people are disengaged from and disinterested in the work they are doing and in other people. Although there are employers who have attempted to implement, “Engagement programs,” in their organizations, more often than not these initiatives fail because they do not address the real underlying issue: the lack of connection to the true meaning of the work.

Employees want to feel that their work matters to them and to others (co-workers, customers, citizens and the broader society). Employees also want to challenge themselves to discover new sides of themselves and new talents. These are important factors in the search for meaning that also help to build resilience.

If you want things to stay the same, then something is going to have to change!

To be resilient means to be flexible, capable of adapting to and quickly recovering from difficulties or change. The nature of life is change but we often resist this fact of life, wanting things to remain the same, trying to design and control our lives and surroundings so that change does not happen. Even if we want to stand still, everyone and everything else around us is changing. Meaning is affected by our ability to accept change and build our resilience to better meet whatever challenges come our way.

  • Well-Being & Health

Many illnesses are the result of stress and anxiety which, when left untreated, start to negatively affect the body, as well as the mind and spirit. One of the challenges of modern medicine is that we often treat the symptoms of an illness but fail to address its root cause(s).

Plato wisely said, “The part cannot be well unless the whole is well.” Health and wellbeing must start from the core of meaning. When we are engaged in meaningful activities that we enjoy, when we feel that we matter and what we do matters, and when we tap into our optimistic, positive spirit, energy can freely flow within us, through us and to others. Conversely, when we are engaged in activities that are meaningless to us, when we feel that we are not living and/or working authentically or when we are overwhelmed with anxiety and stress, we lack the connection to our true essence and, therefore, suffer from a lack or void of meaning. Energy ceases to flow smoothly and energy blockages can eventually show up in some form of illness or disease. Everything, as Plato also said, is interconnected. Meaning gives energy and power to our desires and intentions and, as a consequence, helps us live healthier, more holistic lives, including when we are at work.

  • Performance & Innovation

Often leaders and managers will ask for higher levels of performance, creativity and innovation from their team members. These requests may be ignored or discounted by employees who already feel that they are contributing more than their fair share and perhaps are suffering from high levels of burnout. Even if some employees have good intentions, often they feel that they just can’t do any more than they are already doing.

But most employees do want opportunities at work to try new approaches, express new ideas, and build new skills. They want to build their creative identity, build their personal sense of self-worth and feel proud of their work. They do not want to leave their spirit at the front door in order to fit in with others who are not interested in pursuing excellence. Either way, all employees want to be appreciated for their contributions.

In summary, if everyone understood the Meaning First concept with its implications for engagement & resilience, well-being & health and performance & innovation, we would all begin to take the important steps to address the crisis of meaning in our workplaces, and in society as a whole.

Author: Alex Pattakos, a former ASPA National Council member, is a founder of a think tank, the Global Meaning Institute (www.globalmeaninginstitute.com). He is co-author with Elaine Dundon of two international bestselling books on the human quest for meaning: Prisoners of Our Thoughts, based on the wisdom of the world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and The OPA! Way, uniquely inspired by Greek philosophy, mythology, and culture. Pattakos and Dundon are also the creators of the discipline of MEANINGology®, the study and practice of meaning in life, work, and society. He is recognized as the world’s leading authority on applying Frankl’s System of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis to work, the workplace, and organizations in government and business. His passions include advancing meaning in government and the human side of innovation. He may be contacted at: [email protected]


Twitter Handles: @DrMeaning and @TheOPAWay


1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *