Creating a meaningful and rewarding workplace environment

Last weekend, we celebrated Labor Day, which was established as the first Monday in September and “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”  The early Labor Days were initially a day of parades and celebrations for the “working person.”  Today, I think that it’s become a treasured three-day weekend that for many represents the official end of summer.

If I look at it as a three-day weekend, this Labor Day was a particularly special one for Peggy and me, because we celebrated our first Labor Day with ODU and spent the weekend exploring the many things available in the Hampton Roads area.  We visited the ocean, local museums, and found new places to eat and drink.

In addition, I did take time to think about my responsibilities as a leader to the wonderful people that I have the opportunity to work with.  As we celebrated Labor Day, one of the responsibilities I thought about was the responsibility we have as leaders to create a meaningful and rewarding workplace.

In an earlier blog post,, I explored the importance of leaders in articulating their purpose and the courage to live it at work and at home.  While this is the single most important development task we can undertake as leaders, I think another important and challenging step is to communicate, model, and establish a workplace environment that reflects our purpose while making the workplace environment meaningful and rewarding for those with whom we work.

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “Getting to ‘US’”, George Halvorson describes our social world as divided between “us” and “them.”  He makes the point that we treat individuals differently depending on which category we perceive they fall; one of us or one of them. He suggests that “great leadership in the 21st century is a matter of endowing groups of individuals with a satisfying sense of us and channeling their energy productively toward noble ends.”  Our leadership challenge is communicating the purpose/mission of our organization in a meaningful way to our organization so that they feel not only “part of us” but proud to be part of us.

As part of the celebration of Labor Day, CBS Sunday Morning had a story of three examples of leaders finding ways to powerfully communicate their purpose to their organization. The three examples used on the Sunday Morning show were Whole Foods, Radio Flyer, and Market Basket.  What makes these places different and a good place to work?  Robert Levering, one of the creators of the “100 Best Companies to Work For,” suggested that what makes a special place to work is creating a “relationship of trust.”  Levering goes on to say that leadership creates a culture where you hear people talk about being “either a family-like environment or a team-like environment.”

Not all companies or organizations create this type of culture in the same way.  For Whole Foods, they create a team environment where employees are called “team members,” and team members have meaningful work such as voting on who is hired and where team members are rewarded when the team does well.  Does spending time on creating such an environment really pay off?  John Mackey of Whole Foods believes it does: “When our team members are happy and enjoy their work, they give better service to the customers….And then if customers are happy, they continue to shop at the store, they market through word of mouth, and the business flourishes. It prospers.”

I am absolutely convinced that unless you value each of your team members they will not value your customers.  It is darn tough to give good customer service when you are in a work place where you don’t feel valued.

Another company mentioned in the Morning Show on CBS was Radio Flyer — you know they make those cool red wagons that either we played with as kids or had wagon envy because we didn’t have one.  And that wagon envy eventually plays out so that we made sure our kids and grandkids had a Radio Flyer.  Other than being the home of the cool red wagon, what makes this company so special?  It is that each employee lives by the “Little Red Rule.”  The rule is living up to the statement that “every time we touch people’s lives, they will feel great about Radio Flyer.” Those who excel at this are known as Flyers. What a powerful way to measure your success as an organization — every time we touch people’s lives, this could include the first phone call to how well the product works, customers will feel great, not good, about our offices.

The third example was Market Basket; you may remember this grocery store where 20,000 employees and some customers went on strike over the restructuring that removed the CEO and replaced him with his cousin in the hopes of returning more to investors and less to employees.  It was a family feud that resulted in the company losing an estimated $1 million a day.  Late last week the board agreed to a buyout that returned the CEO to his position, which was received not with protests but by celebrations that the family was back together.

I really love this story. Is there a more powerful statement of support than a group of people willing to put their jobs at risk in support of their leader? As a leader, how do you create this deep feeling of support, of family? John Mackey of Whole Foods has it right when he says, “People want more than just to earn a living….People want meaning. They want purpose. They want to feel like their work is making a difference in the world.”

So my question to myself is: Am I creating the type of work place where there is meaning and that individuals feel they are making a difference? Am I creating a working environment and esprit de corps where others would go out on strike in similar support as we saw with Market Basket?


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2 Responses to Creating a meaningful and rewarding workplace environment

  1. Don Swoboda says:

    I’m still looking for a reason to argue with you instead of totally agreeing with you. Right on again.
    don s

  2. shaeffjm says:

    Thanks Don, I will try to come up with something more controversial in the future. Take care.

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