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Meaning-making in values-driven organizations. Marya Hill-Popper May 2005. How do you evaluate your work?.

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how do you evaluate your work
How do you evaluate your work?

In several ways, I guess. One is a paycheck. [Laughs.] And that’s why I came – one of the reasons why I came. The other one was to learn about the products that were available. The paycheck works. It’s not big…it’s little. The learning part’s off and on. Sometimes I learn, sometimes I don’t. Training and education are two different things, and they tend to do more training than education. And the training is spotty. (M, TM, 16)

how do you evaluate your work1
How do you evaluate your work?

I really believe in the, you know, the mission statement of this company, and to tell you the truth I think that’s why a lot of people work here. It’s funny, there’s a lot of, um, people who work here who have, you know, degrees from really good schools, and, you know, a lot of higher education, and they choose to work here just because, you know, of what the company stands for. You know, even though the pay might not be the greatest. (M, ATL, 17)

outline for presentation
Outline for presentation
  • Motivation and conceptual framework
  • Preliminary field study: Whole Foods
  • Proposed approach for dissertation
  • Loss of meaning in modern organizations
    • Classical social theory (Marx 1978; Weber 1946, 1978)
    • Contemporary sociology (e.g., Khurana 2002)
  • Rise of values-driven organizations
    • Many business organizations claim to have purpose or core values that guide their actions
    • We do not understand impact of organizational purpose on internal and external constituents
    • My work focuses on impact of purpose on key internal constituents: employees
  • Question: What is nature of relationship between organizational purpose and employee meaning?
meaning and values driven organizations
Meaning and values-driven organizations

Early organizational scholars linked meaning with common purpose:

    • Weber (1946, 1978) on charismatic leadership
    • Barnard (1968) and Selznick (1984) on mission and common purpose

Three main perspectives among contemporary scholars

  • Purpose and values a source of meaning
    • “Integration” scholars advocate use of collective values to generate employee engagement and commitment (e.g., Schein, 1985; Deal & Kennedy, 1982; Collins & Porras,1994)
  • Purpose and values negatively related to meaning
    • Critics of strong culture argue org membership is in tension with self identity (Kunda 1992; Martin 1992, 2002)
    • Implication is that strong collective purpose leaves little room for personal meaning
  • Purpose and values not related to meaning
    • Neo-institutional theorists treat purpose as “myth”, decoupled from actual org practices (Meyer & Rowan 1977; Dobbin & Sutton 1998)
    • Implication is that purpose has little or no meaning for employees

Relationship between purpose, meaning and performance

Individual factors

  • Status/educ, age, culture
  • Tenure, job level, function

Organizational purpose and values



  • Instrumental vs. value-based rationale
  • Individual vs. collective goals
  • Content (esp. social / cultural resonance)
  • Internal consistency
  • Multiplexity

Work context

  • Consistency of values w/ practices
  • Structure of work
values driven organization
Values-driven organization
  • Organization has purpose and set of values that connect the product or service produced to a broader societal goal
  • Purpose and values serve as a basis for strategic and operational decision making
    • That is, purpose and values are given a weight equal to or higher than financial performance considerations in making these decisions
defining meaning
Defining meaning
  • Two components of meaning (Podolny et al. 2005)
    • Action is connected to ends I care about
    • Action is collective not purely individual
  • Theoretical roots of definition
    • Weber’s substantive rationality
    • Rousseau, Durkheim on community
  • Concept is related to intrinsic motivation, but different level of analysis and temporal frame
operationalizing meaning
Operationalizing meaning
  • Examine structure of language in addition to content
    • How people talk not just what they say
  • Choices in the grammar represent alternative ways of construing experience (Halliday 1994; Halliday & Matthiessen 1999)

Language enables human beings to build a mental picture of reality, to make sense of what goes on around them and inside them. Here again the clause plays a central role, because it embodies a general principle for modeling experience – namely the principle that reality is made up of processes.

Our most powerful impression of experience is that it consists of ‘goings-on’ – happening, doing, sensing, meaning, and being and becoming. All these goings-on are sorted out in the grammar of the clause. Thus…the clause is … a mode of reflection, of imposing order on the endless variation and flow of events.

linguistic indicators
Linguistic indicators

Linguistic indicator 1: Process type

  • Experience construed through grammatically distinct process types (Halliday 1994; Halliday & Matthiessen 1999)
    • Material: Doing (to), happening, creating
    • Mental: Thinking, feeling, seeing
    • Relational: Symbolizing, having identity, having attribute
  • Implications for meaning
    • Material, mental processes imply more active engagement
linguistic indicators cont
Linguistic indicators (cont)

Linguistic indicator 2: Pronoun use

  • Personal pronoun use linked to social integration, self vs. group identity (Pennebaker et al. 2003)
    • Relative prevalence of I, you, he/she, we, they
  • Implications for meaning:
    • Singular vs. plural pronouns as indicator of self vs. group identity
    • We vs. they as indicator of type of relationship with group
preliminary field study
Preliminary field study


  • How do front-line employees engage with organizational purpose and values in making meaning out of their work?


  • Choose setting where meaning likely to occur
    • For-profit organization with strong mission and values
    • Within org. design controls for variation in structure of work
  • Study process by which employees engage with mission
    • Goal is to identify key elements of sensemaking process
  • Use multiple methods to assess meaning
    • Primary data source: Interviews with front-line employees
    • Inductive content analysis
    • Grammatical structure analysis
whole foods market
Whole Foods Market
  • Organic and natural foods retailer
  • 150 U.S. locations, 26,000 employees
  • Revenues of $3.9 B, 3.5% net margin (FY04)
  • Founded 1980, early growth through acquisition, recent growth through new store development
  • Fortune “100 Best Companies to Work For”, 1998-2005
  • Employment practices and work structure include:
      • Peer hiring
      • Information sharing (store level comp, sales, employee satisfaction)
      • Highest compensation capped at 14x avg of FT employees
      • 401K, stock options, health insurance for PT employees
      • Within stores, decentralized teams with P/L responsibility
      • “Team members” and “Team leaders”
wfm mission and values
WFM Mission and Values

Declaration of Interdependence

We are a mission driven company that aims to set the standards of excellence for food retailers…Our motto – Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet – emphasizes that our vision reaches far beyond just being a food retailer. Our success in fulfilling our vision is measured by customer satisfaction, Team member excellence and happiness, return on capital investment, improvement in the state of the environment, and local and larger community support.”

Core values

  • “Selling the highest quality natural and organic products available”
  • “Satisfying and delight our customers”
  • “Team member happiness and excellence”
  • “Creating wealth through profits and growth”
  • “Caring about our communities and our environment”
participant profile

Male: 9

Female: 12


HS or some college: 10

College or higher: 11


White/Caucasian: 16

Hispanic: 3

African American: 1

Asian American: 1


Manager/assistant: 11

Team member: 10

Status: 13 “high status”

College or higher educ. OR work experience in higher status indus.

Avg. age: 36

Store tenure: 1.5 yrs

Company tenure: 3.2 yrs

Participant profile

21 interviews across 2 sites in Boston areaStandard interview protocol, ~30min

data coding and analysis
Data coding and analysis

Inductive content analysis

  • By theme and by case
  • Particular attention to how employees …
    • Characterize the company and its mission
    • Describe and evaluate their current work role
    • Link work role to personal goals and values

Linguistic indicators

  • Existing coding guidelines adapted for spoken text
  • Process types coded at clause level
  • Pronoun use coded within clauses
  • ESL interviews coded but not included in final analysis

Employees engage with mission and values by…

  • Selecting, prioritizing and reinterpreting mission and values in terms of their own personal values
  • Evaluating consistency of mission and values with actions
  • Using mission and values to reframe their work
selecting and prioritizing
Selecting and prioritizing

Employees recognize multiplex mission, select one or more components to prioritize over others

The mission is to bring, um, good food to as many people as they possibly can. It’s…at least in this store and in the last store I worked at the bosses - who are called team leaders, in different departments - they really do care about the people who work for them. They really do. Um, because I think on the whole, it comes from the philosophy that if you hire good people they’ll make good hires…[Interviewer: Okay. And for you, is that part of what the company’s mission is?] To make workers happy. Yes, I think-or at least that’s one that I choose to emphasize. I’m not at all interested in, in stockholders. I’m really not. [F, TM, 08]


Employees reinterpret mission consistent with their own individual values

I understand their mission is to work off the land and support the people who are working off the land and…it sounds kind of silly but make the world a better place by not using extra things in their foods and contaminants and helping out kind of with some of the things that we’ve already done wrong. So…I see their mission as to just help and improve. (F, TM, 07)

counter examples
  • 19 of 21 employees engage in selecting and prioritizing, reinterpreting or both
  • In order to select and prioritize or reinterpret, employees must find mission and values to be meaningful
  • 2 of 21 employees interviewed found no meaning in mission and values

That’s kind of a tough question because they really try to pound the mission…We have an orientation and they have this like card that they give us with the mission typed out on it. And I couldn’t even tell you what it says. I think it’s posted on the wall right over there. I mean it’s something about excellence and quality of food and customer service and in um, also employee happiness-is one of their, is part of their mission. And um, that’s about all. (F, TM, 14)

selecting prioritizing and reinterpreting linguistic analysis
Selecting, prioritizing and reinterpreting:Linguistic analysis
  • Greater cognitive and emotional engagement with mission and values compared to other issues
    • Across questions, relative use of mental clauses highest when talking about company mission (27% vs. avg of 14%)
  • When talking about mission, employees who find mission meaningful…
    • Use relatively more mental clauses
      • 28% vs. 20%
    • Use relatively more “we” and less “they”
      • We/they ratio of 1.1 vs. 0.1
evaluating consistency
Evaluating consistency

Consistency of mission with profit

  • Formally, profit and growth part of mission
  • In practice, employees question mission-profit consistency
    • 11 of 21 discuss mission-profit relationship – unprompted
    • Majority (9 of 11) interpret mission and profit as consistent or accept tensions between them
    • 2 “deviants” reject profit as a worthy goal

Consistency of values with actions

  • Questioning of mission-profit relationship linked to more general phenomenon – evaluating consistency of values with actions
  • All interviewees engage in this process
    • 15 of 21 interpret practices as consistent with values or overlook inconsistencies
    • 6 of 21 interpret practices as inconsistent with values
mission and profit
Mission and profit

Profit accepted

Sometimes people who work in the stores are very committed to the core values or they’re committed to working well with people and being supportive and also, you know, to natural foods and everything; and then you have other people who, they’re just here to make a profit and they think of that as like the highest [goal]. And I think, ideally in the mission of the company is a combination of those two. One shouldn’t be sacrificed for the other. I mean I understand also that it makes sense not to pay attention to social issues at the expense of profit making, because then you don’t have the money to support the enterprise. I think that’s really the genius of this idea. But I think that paying attention to profits at the expense of the other core values like team member happiness or environmental stewardship, is just as dumb. [Laughs.] And for me [it is] very unpleasant. I hate it when I see people doing that. (F, TM, 09)

Profit rejected

I shopped at Whole Foods for years. And you know, people that have been here a long time have said it’s changed, since, since the old days to going public. And…and the numbers-driven kind of thing reflects on the floor. Cause they discontinued some things that people like, and, cause it doesn’t do big numbers. And…[pause]…that’s not the way I work, but that’s the way this company works. (M, TM, 16)

values and actions
Values and actions


Whole Foods is just, you know, like it’s a supermarket, but as I see it, it’s a totally different supermarket... What I see about Whole Foods like the core values that we have… It might be not different [than what they have at other supermarkets], but we really practice… We greet every customer that comes we say “hi” and we say “can I help you” and we do everything that we can to help a customer find a product that they are looking for... Whole Foods is like, you know…they also worry a lot about team members. You know like team members is the second thing for Whole Foods. First customer service and then the team member happiness, which is really good. Like, any problem that you have, you just go and you talk to them and it’s not like they write it on a piece of paper and that’s it, they forget it. You know, they will go for it, and they come back to you and they tell you, you know, this is what is going on. (F, ATL, 13)


The thing about Whole Foods being ecologically friendly and providing like vegan foods and all these options for people with specialized needs and diets…It’s kind of I think a bit misleading. They say that you can throw like glass and aluminum and all things in the trash can and that the trash then gets sorted and everything gets recycled, but really only like the plastic is getting recycled, not all of the cardboard and glass and aluminum. So…that is a little bit frustrating for me… A certain image is being presented and also being told to you but it’s not all necessarily happening. (F, TM, 14)

evaluating consistency linguistic analysis
Evaluating consistency: Linguistic analysis

Evaluating consistency of mission with profit

  • When talking about company mission, use of plural pronouns differs across groups
    • Use of “they” relative to other pronouns highest among those who conclude mission in tension with profit
    • Use of “we” relative to other pronouns highest among those who conclude mission consistent with profit

Evaluating consistency of values with action

  • Across all questions, interviewees who conclude values inconsistent with action use relatively more “I” and “they”
  • Interviewees who conclude values consistent with action use relatively more “we”
reframing the work
Reframing the work
  • By construing mission as socially important, employees enhance the value of their own work
      • Cognitive response to social stigma of the job
      • Interpretation draws on literature on “dirty work” (Hughes 1951; Ashforth & Kreiner 1999)
  • 13 of 21 employees engage in reframing
  • Reframing more important and more common for high status employees
      • These employees have reference groups and opportunity structures that enhance stigma of job
      • 9 of 13 high status employees reframe vs. 4 of 8 other
reframing the work1
Reframing the work

I’ve seen how, from [when] I started here to now, how I feel about myself, what I feel about going to work and leaving work and, you know, how it kind of, it fits for me. I enjoy it. And I don’t want to, you know, leave, because I feel the fulfillment of working here. You know, I feel good about it. And people say it’s just a grocery store and it’s like, “Nope, there’s more to it.” You know, so. It’s more of a frame of mind and how you’re doing things… I wouldn’t go to like a Shaw’s and work if I had to leave Whole Foods. (F, TM, 07)

I think that there’s a stigma that’s associated with a grocery store. You know, when people say, what do you do? Oh I work in a grocery store, and people kinda look at you funny. Like, you know, didn’t you go get a college education and you know, aren’t you trained to do this, that, or the other? It’s like well yeah, I am. And they say, well why do you work in a grocery store? And it’s because I believe in what I do. (F, ATL 15)

reframing the work linguistic analysis
Reframing the work: Linguistic analysis
  • When talking about company mission, employees who reframe their work use…
    • Lower pct relational process type
      • 43% vs. 57%
      • Suggests more active engagement with mission
    • Lower pct “they”
      • 26% vs. 45%
      • Suggests greater sense of belonging to org. as collective group
  • But across other questions, no significant differences in language use between those who reframe and those who do not
summary and implications
Summary and implications

Main findings

  • Employees selectively draw on and interpret mission and values in way that is personally meaningful
  • Sense-making process involves:
    • Selecting and prioritizing
    • Reinterpreting
    • Evaluating consistency
    • Using mission to reframe work


  • Mission and values as a resource (and liability) for meaning-making
  • Attachment to collective values can enable rather than inhibit individual meaning
    • Due to selection process participants more likely than average employee to feel strong attachment to mission and values
    • But strong attachment to collective values does not preclude development of individual interpretation
next steps
Next steps
  • WFM findings diverge from strong culture and neo-institutional accounts of relationship between mission and meaning
  • What accounts for the difference?
    • Structure of work – NOT a 24/7 job
    • Interpersonal context – Did not directly examine team context
    • Content of mission and values – Linked to social change
    • Selection – Did not interview former employees
  • Emerging question: Under what conditions do strong collective purpose and values enable individual meaning-making and allow room for the self?
setting for dissertation
Setting for dissertation
  • Values-driven organization, provides business technology and consulting services
  • In process of introducing new “Purpose”
    • Old purpose: delivering the promise of technology
    • New purpose: enabling human potential
  • ~2000 employees; ~50% in India
  • Have obtained access for interviews and observation
  • Also have access to annual morale survey and performance data
proposed approach
Proposed approach

Phase 1

  • Exploratory pilot study
  • Interviews and observation of rollout sessions for new purpose
  • Goal is to develop hypotheses about…
    • How employees make meaning out of collective purpose and values
    • Differences in meaning-making process across sub-groups
  • Initial interviews suggest differences along at least two dimensions
    • Internal vs. client-facing groups
    • US vs. India

Phase 2

  • Interview and survey-based field study
  • Design to be based on hypotheses that emerge from pilot
  • Anticipate focusing on differences in meaning-making across functions, cultures and job levels

Relationship between mission, meaning and performance

Individual factors

  • Status/educ, age, culture
  • Tenure, job level, function

Organizational mission and values



  • Instrumental vs. value-based rationale
  • Individual vs. collective goals
  • Content (esp. social / cultural resonance)
  • Internal consistency
  • Multiplexity

Work context

  • Consistency of values w/ practices
  • Structure of work