Feature

Connecting Hearts in the Workplace

The author of The Why of Work sees school leaders creating among staff a deeper sense of meaning in the work of transformation by DAVE ULRICH AND BELINDA A. WOODSON

Lots of talk is taking place in organizations today about turnaround and transformation.

Turnaround is not transformation. Turnaround is public statements; transformation is personal commitments. Turnaround focuses on cutting costs; transformation builds an emotional bond. Turnaround changes structures and reporting relationships; transformation changes the fundamental culture of an organization.


School system leaders who emphasize transformation need to redefine how their administrators, staff and faculty think about and relate to work.

Dave UlrichUniversity of Michigan business professor Dave Ulrich is co-author of The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win.


We have found in our research an increasing quest for meaning in our lives. Coming out of an economic recession, many find a more demanding psychological recession where their lives are more than a series of events, tweets or to-do lists. This search for meaning includes increased attention to family, hobbies, neighborhoods, social causes and religion. But since our work lives often consume a large portion of our time and shape our identity, they are primary places for meaning making.

We have found that leaders become meaning makers when they couple their required leadership duties with passion and emotion, so those they lead not only know what to do and how to do it but have a sense of why they are doing it. Leaders who create meaning in their work setting have more productive and committed employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders. Making meaning at work makes sense and cents.

Redefining Work
Schools are a primary setting where administrators can redefine how work is conceived and completed. We developed seven principles that school leaders may adapt to help school district employees hold a deeper sense of abundance or meaning in their work experiences.

•  Identity. Look how quickly people form a strong identity with their school — by wearing logos on clothes and claiming school affiliation as a way to define who they are. School mascots sometimes become symbols for student and faculty identity.

Identity includes symbols and cheers, but it is more. Identity arises when leaders recognize an employee’s strengths, then use those strengths to help others. A teacher with an interest in drama, sports or arts can be tapped to help students in these formal and informal pursuits. An administrator with a knack for computer-based scheduling can share that ability with others to simplify complex student schedules. A parent with a desire to serve can be encouraged to volunteer and support school activities.

We are aware of a building principal who learned that even tow truck drivers in the community knew her school had a “bad” reputation. Under the principal’s direction, teachers and staff spent time with community-based organizations (Scouting, church groups, neighborhood gatherings, etc.). These activities helped shape how the community saw the school.

In another school district, a principal targeted a specific subject area to build an identity, then worked hard to hire excellent staff in that subject.

Leaders build meaning when they recognize the interests and unique skills of those they lead and then encourage people to draw on their strengths to strengthen others. Leaders may ask their staff, “What do we want to be known for?” and then turn those ideas into a set of actions that build the organization’s new identity. 

•  Purpose. How often do people get to say they work for an organization that really makes a difference in the lives of people they serve? Sometimes leaders struggle to fabricate meaning in organizations that make cars, serve food or fly airplanes. They create grandiose and eloquent vision statements to help employees sense a purpose in their work. But most who have chosen to work in education do so out of a real and personal passion to help others learn.

The purpose of educators at work is not contrived, but experienced. Most school employees have personal stories of teachers, coaches, directors or other school-affiliated mentors who shaped their lives. A principal tapped into this ethos by giving each administrator and teacher a Newberry award-winning book to give to someone to help him or her savor reading.

Administrators who focus on budgets, facilities, schedules and the other required routines of schools miss an incredible opportunity to tap into the heart of why most work in education settings. Unfortunately, when budgets and resources are cut, school administrators often get “stuck” dealing with the management side of education rather than that of building relationships, which takes time. Telling stories about individual students, honoring both winners and everyday participants in science fairs to debate clubs and athletics and finding ways to celebrate learning help administrators minister to those they serve.

When the personal purpose of educating others becomes ingrained and encouraged throughout your organization, you will help others remember the meaning that led them to a career in education. Effective leaders also shape a clear purpose for their organization, improving student test scores, building relationships for life and learning to learn. This purpose often reflects community values.

•  Relationships. Teaching can be hard work when discipline overshadows learning and policies become more important than people.

To cope with the managerial demands of teaching, administrators may encourage personal relationships among staff. One school leader had a motto, “Family First,” as a way to encourage students to have parents and grandparents participate in field day and other activities.

Administrators communicate caring when they know their staff. When staff know that administrators care about them as people, they work harder. With a sense of caring, even tough decisions about faculty performance can be made in a setting of support.

Loyalty often is directed to a person who did a favor in a moment of crisis, who took time to know the names and personalities of those the person leads and who listened. A principal spent time greeting the buses as they disgorged 900 students each morning. She walked the halls during class breaks. She did lunchroom duty.

Soon, she knew the names and personalities of most of the students and greeted them by name during the day. It is no surprise the feelings in the school were warm and students were happier at school. It is not surprising that even student test scores rose dramatically as teachers began to model the principal’s relationship building. Leaders who create meaning promote relationship building.

In another school, staff made a “hot list” of students who they felt could positively impact their school. These students then were encouraged to be involved in setting a tone for the school. Faculty would meet monthly to identify hot-list students, check their grades and encourage them to connect with other students. For students with behavior problems, faculty members meet frequently to do behavioral triage where these student’s problems are identified early.

•  Positive work environment. How long after you walk into a school before you sense the atmosphere and attitude of that school? Probably minutes. You can sense this attitude in the eyes of the staff, in the actions of the students and in the energy within the building.

A positive work environment is not an accident. Students, staff and faculty often adopt the demeanor of their leader. A principal or district administrator who governs from a distance behind closed office doors creates emotional distance. On the other hand, leaders who share credit for success and take blame for failures earn the loyalty of those they lead. Leaders who have clear and fair standards for themselves are more likely to have people live up to those expectations.

Leaders who keep their schools clean build respect for facilities. Leaders who regularly communicate and listen receive more suggestions for how to improve. A work culture consists of dozens of small decisions leaders make, but even more the culture reflects the leader’s daily conduct.

One principal we observed begins each staff meeting with staff member recognition called “hugs,” in which the leader recognizes individuals who performed outstanding work in the previous week or month. Then the leader asks others to recognize those who have gone the extra mile. One principal gave a rose to each faculty member or aide who went the extra mile and called this “run for the roses.” Another leader had a “joy cart” where the leader would take a rolling cart of goodies into the classroom to recognize the teacher’s good works in front of students. These activities contribute to a positive work setting. 

•  Work itself. We all like to do work that comes easily, is enjoyable and energizes us. It is delightful to observe band conductors, drama directors or varsity sports coaches who like what they do. Their energy is contagious, and they can rally students, parents and community members to participate in their events. They work for pay, but they lead with passion.

Administrators need to help people find work that energizes them. Individuals bring different skills to the work front, and when those individual skills are matched to particular needs, teachers teach better, coaches coach better and conductors conduct better. When administrators ask employees what work they like, it begins a conversation about how work can provide meaning for the worker.

One school leader repeatedly asks her staff members how their work makes a difference in the lives of those they care about. By answering this question, they are more capable of recognizing their sometimes-daily routines have long-term consequences. Doing work that energizes and excites builds meaning.

In one school facing major cutbacks in staffing (but not cuts in students), the leaders went to the staff and faculty to brainstorm and share how they should respond with fewer staff. When others are part of the solution, the problems are less burdensome.

•  Learning, growth and resilience. The motto of the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain is “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” This motto reminds employees that civility and kindness matter. Of course, discipline is a part of every administrator’s daily duties.

When students, faculty or staff do not live up to expectations, administrators must act. The loudest feedback a leader gives is none because the person who erred may perceive the error as not an error. Yet administrators may offer feedback with respect and encourage obedience to rules as a first step to future success.

Education, at its essence, is about learning and growth. Administrators may encourage faculty to learn how to teach better year after year rather than depend on old materials and teaching plans. Student learning is enhanced when faculty and administrators have a mindset to learn and to grow. Leaders encourage learning by frequently asking, “What worked? What did not? How can we improve?” and then turning these insights into future actions.

Leaders must model the spirit of improvement. They need to demonstrate how they are lifelong learners by sharing what they are reading, studying and seeking to improve.

•  Civility, delight and fun. Some administrators hide their personalities behind policy. Others are willing to combine an atmosphere of hard work with fun. One administrator we know of tells jokes over the school public address system (even “knock-knock” jokes). Another administrator dressed up as a sumo wrestler and let students roll her around in an all-student assembly. Others have sat on a dunk tank at a back-to-school night, wrote notes to parents honoring their children as students, danced at a student assembly, and so forth. While it is important to maintain standards and discipline, both are more sustainable when done with a sense of humor and civility. Schools need to be fun places.

Shaping Attitudes
Why go through these somewhat obvious leadership tips? Because we have learned that organizational leadership is not just about the motions and actions of leading others, but about capturing and connecting with the hearts of those you lead. To do so, learn why they are working — for identity, purpose, relationships, work environment, work itself, growth and civility — and they will bring their whole selves to the job.

Administrators who create meaning shape the well-being of employees, the cultures of their school and the attitude of their community. They do not just do turnarounds, but fundamental transformations that endure over time.

Dave Ulrich is a professor of business at the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan and co-founder of the RBL Group. He is co-author of The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win. E-mail: dou@umich.edu. Belinda Woodson is principal of Bridger Middle School in Independence, Mo.