Doug Lepisto

Doug Lepisto rethinks how higher purpose forms in Academy of Management Journal research paper

January 12, 2022

By: Leslie Ellis

Leaders can help a shared sense of meaningfulness form when they enable, allow, and motivate employees to gather, according to a research paper by Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) Faculty Affiliate Doug Lepisto.

In “Ritual Work and the Formation of a Shared Sense of Meaningfulness,” published in the Academy of Management Journal, Lepisto builds theory about how a shared sense of meaningfulness forms through interaction ritual and emotion.

The theory is based on his findings from a 21-month field study of an athletic footwear and apparel company (“FitCo”). Lepisto was embedded at the company when it introduced a communal fitness program called Liven (a research pseudonym). Lepisto participated in Liven classes with FitCo employees. He also interviewed participants and nonparticipants about their experiences as part of his qualitative research.

At FitCo, forming a shared sense of meaning began when leaders created the material space for Liven on campus, mobilized employees to participate, and established inclusive class levels and times. These actions that enabled employees to gather in a communal workout are an example of a more general set of practices Lepisto refers to as “ritual work.” Lepisto defines ritual work as “actions by leaders to create, maintain, and expand opportunities for, and members’ entry into, situations where members physically co-assemble and develop a shared attention and a shared mood.”

At FitCo, Liven was an example of an effective situation in that employees developed a strong shared attention and shared mood which generated an infectious emotional energy that more and more employees experienced.

In turn, employees then shared feelings of emotional energy through talk and gesture. Employees said they started to see FitCo “existed for something bigger than shoes and T-shirts,” Lepisto writes.

Finally, FitCo leaders articulated why the organization’s activities were worthy and symbolically connected these words to employees’ shared emotions to produce a shared representation of meaningfulness.

“My findings suggest that organizational interaction rituals that are organized around an activity central to the organization allow members to develop emotional energy around the organization’s work and core activities,” Lepisto writes. “At FitCo, this involved communal workouts given the alignment with its strategic focus on selling shoes, apparel, and experiences in the fitness space.

“Other examples of organizational interaction rituals could include all-night hackathons at Facebook and Goldman Sachs ‘TeamWorks’ employee volunteering program where employees congregate to help aspiring students in the finance industry,” Lepisto writes. “To the degree leaders engage in ritual work to create these organizational interaction rituals and facilitate bodies flowing through them, my theory offers an account of how a shared sense of meaningfulness could form.”

Lepisto’s findings stand in contrast to prior theory that focuses on deliberate, top-down rhetoric and visioning by leaders to create a shared sense of meaningfulness.

“A key empirical finding of my study is that leaders’ rhetoric and communication are not a necessary condition to trigger formation,” Lepisto writes. “My findings show that leaders do play an important role in triggering formation but one that differs from our current understanding of their role in creating meaningfulness in organizations. … They serve as gatherers. Formation is triggered and propelled through the actions leaders take to enable, allow, and motivate members to gather.”

“As increasing numbers of organizations attempt to create a shared sense that ‘what we do’ is meaningful, this study offers timely insights on how this sense successfully forms,” Lepisto writes. Given current discussions about returning to the office, and the role of the gathering in the office in modern work, Lepisto’s study shows how coming together can instill a higher purpose at work.

Lepisto is an Associate Professor of Management and Co-Director of the Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy at the Western Michigan University Haworth College of Business.