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Principles in Brief

Life of Meaning and Synergy

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, believed that we all need “the striving and struggling for some worthy goal…the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled.  . . . That the more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve, or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”

While imprisoned, he learned that even when experiencing great difficulty, we have the power to choose our response. He gave the example of “men who walked through [the concentration camp] comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.” Those who did so had a better chance of surviving, because it gave them a reason to live. Frankl also taught that when people have no meaning in their lives, they default to the destructive paths of power or pleasure. 

Psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that this pursuit of meaning is a deeply personal journey because everyone differs in their aptitudes, interests, goals, experiences and circumstances. We increasingly self-actualize as we learn about ourselves – what we care about as well as what we are and are not good at.  This better enables us to contribute and succeed, and help others do the same.

In Maslow’s view, we most fully self-actualize when we can achieve what he called synergy by resolving the “dichotomy between selfishness and unselfishness…when by pursuing [our] own self-interest, [we] automatically benefit everyone else, whether [we] mean to or not.” He believed it was possible for societies and organizations to create these conditions. (See Alignment of Incentives.)

Maslow and Frankl found that people prefer meaningful work to meaningless work. Studies have found some janitors to be among the most self-actualized hospital employees. Those in hospitals that enable them to understand how they contribute to the well-being of patients and the smooth functioning of the hospital can experience deep satisfaction and meaning in their work. Similarly, Maslow explained that "washing the dishes can be the most meaningless chore or it can be a symbolic act of love for one’s family.” Thus, what’s important is not the nature of the work itself but our understanding of its purpose and who it is helping.  

As employees, we find greater meaning in our work when we understand how it contributes to improving other people’s lives and the overall success of the company.  Feedback, recognition and rewards help us understand what is valued by others, thereby enabling ourselves and others to experience greater synergy, and our organization and society to experience greater success. (See Motivation.)