A matter of meaning

This content relates to the following topics:

Last night I got caught up in the virtual treasure trove that is the TED Talks website. It’s not the first time this has happened. I go in looking for just one short, stimulating hit and emerge, some hours later, with my mind well and truly boggled. I commend it to you. 

This time I happened upon a talk by Dan Ariely entitled ‘What makes us feel good about our work?’ In it he describes a number of different experiments he and his colleagues have conducted to understand what motivates people beyond money and, interestingly, beyond enjoyment. He makes two conclusions – in order to feel good about our work we need to have a sense that we’re making constant progress and feel a sense of purpose.

I don’t think many people join the NHS to earn massive salaries. That’s not to say I don’t think pay in the NHS is important but I do think most people would agree there’s something beyond pay that drives most NHS employees. The NHS Change Model has at its heart the guiding principle ‘Our shared purpose’ – an indication that if we really want change to happen we need to be united with others around a shared purpose.

But what about individual meaning? How much attention do we pay to that? For those at the front line of care this may be easier to come by; they can go home at the end of the day with the faces of people they have directly helped in their mind. I wonder about those who work ‘behind the scenes’, how can we help them feel really connected to the meaning of their work?

When I used to be a health service manager, I worked in a cardiac centre in London, both managing a cardiology service and agreeing contracts with primary care trusts (PCTs). I remember working with a commissioning manager from a PCT in the East of England. He had a private sector background and, while largely effective in negotiations, he seemed distant from the actual business of patient care. We had decided to run a conference to demonstrate the trust’s primary angioplasty service to various stakeholders (ambulance crews, internal staff, managers, etc,) and I invited him along. Essentially, this was an exercise in demonstrating wider meaning to those who tend to see just their bit of the system. He left much more connected, excited even, about the possibilities for improving patient care.

Our Leadership Summit on 23 May is about leadership post-Francis and rediscovering our purpose. It seems to me that this is what it’s all about: for the benefit of staff and patients.

If Dan Ariely’s findings are to be believed then as leaders, one of the most effective things we can do is to help people see how their work matters or help them articulate for themselves what contribution their work makes. I think it is just as important for leaders themselves to practise this approach. Are you clear about the meaning your own work brings? The contribution you can make? It is also vital that these contributions are acknowledged, recognised and valued.

I work with leaders from across professions, bandings and organisations. The question ‘Am I making a difference?’ cuts right across all these divisions. So let’s pay attention to that question and help others think about it too. Of course for some it comes naturally, and when it does the impact is profound. To conclude, I recommend you listen to this incredible address from a student nurse to the Royal College of Nursing’s 2013 congress.

Meaning. It matters.

Related content


Kerry Bareham

Complex Case Manager /Clinical Team Lead Community Nursing Team,
Comment date
14 May 2013
Absolutely. I remind my team everyday the power they have to make a difference. Excellent face to face care is in the hands of the individual. Leadership is about supporting, empowering and inspiring clinicians and support staff to really care as they would for their own.

Add your comment