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Charlie Duff

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Meaning in abundance: Dave and Wendy Ulrich on The Why of Work


Dave Ulrich needs little introduction to human resource practitioners: the Ulrich model is a famous standard of HR used by many within their organisations. In his current venture, Dave has partnered with his wife, Wendy, as they use common themes from his work as a human resource thought leader and Wendy’s 20+ years of experience in psychology. The result is a book, The Why of Work, outlining seven key principles to create ‘abundance’ in organisations and help everyone find greater meaning in whatever work they do. Charlie Duff asked the pair some questions to give you a flavour of the book and some tips to help you start creating abundance today.

Your new book is based on the idea of ‘abundance’ in organisations. How would you describe an abundant organisation?

An abundant organisation is one that creates meaning for employees, value for customers, and hope for humanity. These are organisations where people want to work because they find meaning from the work and where customers and investors want to connect with because of the quality of employees.

How can HR support the initiatives from the Why of Work with their leaders?

We believe that leaders are the owners of meaning making because they have ultimate accountability and responsibility for an organisation’s culture and because they set an example that others can follow. HR professionals are architects of meaning makers because they build the blueprints for how to bring about sustainable meaning. When HR practices enable meaning, they build the right culture.

How can HR take ownership and make their workplaces more abundant?

HR professionals can align, integrate, and innovate HR practices around people, performance, communication, and work so that meaning happens. When HR practices are woven around the creation of meaning, they turn actions into emotions and organisation cultures into positive work environments.

Do the seven principles fit into your human resources model – are they complementary?

The creation of meaning ties into HR work in many ways. In the talent area, meaning moves the discussion from competence and commitment and adds to this formula contribution or meaning. In the organisation culture area, meaning moves the discussion from any events into events that create meaning among employees and customers. In the leadership area, meaning shifts leaders from going through the motions and actions of leadership to ensuring that they bring emotion and passion to the leadership role. HR work that focuses on outcomes, or deliverables, highlights meaning as part of the outcomes HR creates.

Do you think employees can find meaning in any type of work, no matter how seemingly dull?

The concept of meaning comes from the classic work by Victor Frankl where he composed "man’s search for meaning" in the worst of all possible circumstances. If someone can find meaning in a concentration camp where there is little hope, employees should be able to find meaning in both big and little, senior and junior, domestic and global, and routine and changing jobs. Meaning is less about what happens to us and more about how we interpret what happens.

Is your abundant organisation an alternative to or an advancement on the idea of employee engagement?

Engagement is great work. Most of the engagement work is about behaviour… showing up and working hard. We see abundance as more about contribution and the feelings one has from the work that is done. Some engagement ideas include both action and passion. When we looked into what provides meaning, we identified seven disciplines, including engagement, to distil what gives employees meaning at work. Engagement is an important contribution to the meaning discussion.

How can HR discover what challenges will interest their employees and help them become more abundant?

The obvious way to discover what matters most to employees is to ask them. Generally, employees can express what gives them meaning. The other tools are to observe what employees do when they have choice (water flows downhill and meaning shows up in private moments). And, HR can track behaviour to see how meaning is translated into HR practices like staffing, training, paying, communicating, and restructuring.

Is talent in the organisation a crucial part of achieving greater abundance?

Yes, "talent" has multiple targets. Talent may be the successor of the top leader, the top leadership team, high potential future leaders, or all employees throughout the company. Meaning affects each group by helping them connect their aspirations to the organisation’s actions. This is not an abstract concept. Leaders who help employees create meaning through their organisation membership will find more success.

Recently there have been a lot of attacks on business for not being ethical or responsible enough – can your model help and could it have helped to avoid financial crashes and other disasters where ethics went out of the window?

No model or idea can fully protect organisations from individuals who chose to act unethically. If an individual chooses to lie, cheat, or steal, they will do so. But, a focus on meaning shines a light on these actions and hopefully shows that they will not provide sustainable organisations.

And finally – what will we see from you next?

I like to listen and anticipate what is next: what are the issues that leaders and HR professionals can respond to for sustained competitive advantage. We are doing work on looking at leadership through the eyes of investors, at looking at how leaders can create emotion as well as the right motions, and how HR professionals can continue to add value to focusing attention on the right things.

Dave and Wendy Ulrich are co-authors of The Why of Work.

Dave Ulrich, co-author of The Why of Work
Dave Ulrich, Ph.D., is a professor of business at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and co-founder of The RBL Group. He has written 23 books, has been ranked a top management thought leader in Businessweek, Fortune, Financial Times, The Economist, Fast Company, HR Magazine and People Management, and serves on the Board of Directors for Herman Miller and the Board of Trustees of Southern Virginia University. He has won numerous awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award from American Society of Training and Development.

Wendy ulrich, co-author of The Why of Work

Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D., M.B.A., has been a practicing psychologist for over 20 years and is the author of two books. She is the founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth in Utah, which offers seminar-retreats on creating meaning in life.

3 Responses

  1. Meaning Makers
    “HR professionals are architects of meaning makers”

    That sounds like a very meaningful proposition and fresh perspective to how HR can position themselves as a critical and indispensable enabler?.

    I am excited over the idea that customers and investors want to connect because of the quality of the employees. I am curious to know, how exactly would these interested “stakeholders” come to find out about the quality of employees?. Would it be through some kind of ISO modelled “random” audit or would there be a mandated section covered in the Annual reports?.

    One of the responsibilities of leadership is to remove barriers standing in the way for employees to achieving the company’s goals and mission. Time and again, we have come to hear that the greatest CSF for any change initiative is “top leadership commitment” What if HR, as “architects of meaning makers” find this to be the single biggest barrier to the business growth and survival. As the “spiritual compass” in a company could HR play a more dynamic, assertive and preventive role by intervening to stop “meaningless” practices that could jeopardise the interest of “stakeholders”.

    I have oftened wondered where does HR fit into this “corporate governance” framework that speaks of matters that come under the code of “meaning”. Could HR, as architects of quality leadership have been so blindsighted over what was happening at Enron, worldcom, AIG, Lehman, etc.

    I think the biggest losers in the grand scheme of “business” are those leaders who still see HR as payroll people and do not know a darn thing about what it takes to be a leader. I mean, what hope is of ever achieving “abundance” if a business leader doesn’t have a clue of what “capability” building is all about in a knowledge based economy.

    So, does the architect of “meaning makers” still have to earn a seat at the C suite?.

  2. Another point of view

    Thank you for your comment – we’d welcome another point of view if you would like to write one for us – there’s room for more than one model in HR, and on HRzone!

    Kind regards



  3. More psychobabble is the last thing we need at the moment

    There has been mounting concern over recent years about the failure of Ulrich’s original model – is this approach any better?  Where is their evidence that it works? 

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