Got Meaning?

By Dave Ulrich | November 28, 2017

When ideas collide, insights follow. Across diverse disciplines, convergence has started to occur around the idea of a three-step model of impact: changing from activity (what is done) to experience (how it is done) to meaning (why it is done). This simple logic begins to reframe the impact of many of life’s events.

Moving beyond just an experience to a meaningful experience. 

When “worlds collide,” movies are made and songs written. When ideas collide, insights follow. Across diverse disciplines, convergence has started to occur around the idea of a three-step model of impact: changing from activity (what is done) to experience (how it is done) to meaning (why it is done). This simple logic begins to reframe the impact of many of life’s events.

Eating and food:

  • Activity: Eat food (vending machines, fast food, or quick breakfast).
  • Experience: Have a meal (restaurant experience with good service; fancy meal).
  • Meaning: Have a meal with family and friends; use a meal to celebrate a significant event (Thanksgiving in the U.S. or Ramadan meals in Muslim settings).


  • Activity: Buy a car to get from A to B.
  • Experience: Enjoy the drive (almost all car commercials highlight the driving experience).
  • Meaning: Make the car part of your identity (“I’ve made it in life; I own a _____.”).


  • Activity: Buy a product (online or in-store).
  • Experience: Have a great shopping experience (online by companies anticipating your needs; in-store by employee service).
  • Meaning: Find personal value from the shopping experience (I look or feel better because of what I bought).


Activity: Listen to a song (often on one’s playlist with headphones).
Experience: Attend a concert to sense the artist and followers.
Meaning: Have the music remind you of something that matters in your life (my wife and I had “our” music artist, Nana Mouskouri: we attended her concert [with a lot of really old people], which reminded us of our younger affections).


  • Activity: Sell the product to gain market share.
  • Experience: Make sure the product looks and feels good to gain reputation share.
  • Meaning: Make the world a better place through the meaning of the product in order to gain purpose share.

Positive psychology:

  • Activity: Be motivated by pleasure.
  • Experience: Get into the flow of an activity.
  • Meaning: Find personal purpose from the activity.


  • Activity: Design space.
  • Experience: Create space that sends a message.
  • Meaning: Ignite passion from the space.

Wow. Across multiple disciplines, this three-step evolution shapes how we respond to our world, evolving from what we do to how we do it to why we do it. In all of these cases, meaning matters and moves beyond simple engagement to real contribution.

So, why does this three-step evolution matter in an organization setting? How can we apply it to the work we do?

We have proposed that HR delivers a source of unique competitive advantage in today’s rapidly changing world through talent, leadership, and organization. If each of these outcomes of HR can pivot from activity to experience to meaning, then greater value is created for all stakeholders.


  • Activity: Help employees to be satisfied.
  • Experience: Build employee commitment or engagement.
  • Meaning: Inspire employees to sustain personal commitment through the taking ownership of their work and finding real meaning from it.

When employees find meaning from their work, they not only find increased personal well-being, self-confidence, and physical health, but they are also more personally productive.


  • Activity: Do what leaders do (set goals, make decisions, get things done, communicate).
  • Experience: Create leadership beyond the leader that is embedded in the leadership bench.
  • Meaning: Become a meaning maker for your employees, customers, and investors.

When leaders are meaning makers, they inspire employees to do their best; make sure that customers receive not only a product or service and an experience with it but also a sense of purpose from the product; and build tangible confidence from investors about future success (see the book Leadership Capital Index).


  • Activity: Clarify roles and responsibilities so people know what to do.
  • Experience: Create a culture so people know how to act.
  • Meaning: Become a purpose-driven company (social consciousness) so the organization embodies living values.

When organizations become purpose driven, they are not only more likely to succeed in the marketplace, but they create societal good. These organizations don’t just have any culture; they have the right culture that creates market value. These organizations sustain innovation not only in products and services but in business models as well.

When HR professionals and line managers evolve from focusing on the activity (what they do) to the process (how they do it) to a meaning (why they do it), they have a much greater impact and create more value for all stakeholders of their organization. It is time to shift from activities and experiences to the meaning derived from those experiences.

Now comes the work of identifying meaning. What gives you meaning? How can you then help others find their meaning? Where do your customers, investors, or other stakeholders derive their meaning? While defining and finding meaning is a very personal journey, there are seven common domains of meaning (see the book Why of Work). These seven domains may help you as you look to serve stakeholders and create meaningful experiences for them.

  1. Identity. Meaning comes because one identifies with an activity (e.g., the new fancy car, the title or role in a company).
  2. Purpose. Meaning occurs when personal values are captured in an activity (e.g., listening to a song creates emotional memories; working for a socially conscious company).
  3. Relationships or community. Meaning is found in belonging to a group (e.g., a family meal, a high-performing team).
  4. Sustainable work environment. Meaning comes from institutionalizing ideas, products, or services that outlive any single individual.
  5. Learning or growth. Meaning follows acquiring a new insight, idea, or emotion (e.g., the ability to create something new in architecture, art, music, writing, etc.).
  6. Solving challenges of interest. Meaning comes from creating a line of sight from personal values to daily actions and solving problems that matter.
  7. Delight. Meaning comes from finding pleasure, appreciation, joy, civility, playfulness, humor, or gratitude in daily activities.

Weaving these seven areas into daily organizational decisions can help identify and capture meaning for stakeholders inside and outside the firm.

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

About the author
The RBL Group

© November 2017 The RBL Group. All rights reserved.