As the story goes, late one night President John F. Kennedy stopped to speak wih a janitor while visiting NASA.

"Why are you working so late?" Kennedy asked.

"Because," the main answered, "I'm not mopping floors. I'm putting a man on the moon!"

Hold that thought.

When I was a shop floor worker for what was world's largest commercial printer, every employee was granted stock options. While the strike price was nearly double the current share price, still: If the stock price reached a certain level by a certain date, we would all win.

Except we didn't.

For one thing, what we did on a daily basis didn't seem to connect with the memo from our CEO describing the program, a letter packed with lofty statements like becoming "a world class organization" that "investors would handsomely reward." 

"Preeminent" was the the farthest thing from my mind after spending grease-covered hours lying under equipment that needed repair.

For another, a company's stock price rises and falls for reasons far removed from the average employee's control. Commodity and supply prices could go up. Competitors could enter the market. E-books could become more than a glimmer in a smart developer's eye and the market could decide print was dying. (Which did eventually happen, but not before our options expired.)

Don't get me wrong. The program was both generous and well-intentioned. So why didn't it work? 

That's a question Wharton management professor Andrew Carton set out to answer. As Carton writes in a paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly:

It is assumed that leaders can boost the motivation of employees by communicating the organization's ultimate aspirations, yet evidence on the effectiveness of this tactic is equivocal.

On some occasions, it causes employees to view their work as more meaningful. At other times, it causes them to become dispirited.

These inconsistent findings may in part be explained by a paradox: The very features that make ultimate aspirations meaningful -- their breadth and timelessness -- undermine the ability of employees to see how their daily responsibilities are associated with them.

The NASA janitor? He connected with the mission. He felt he was doing his part. He felt his role was critical. He felt like a key cog -- a small cog, but an important one nonetheless --- in a giant machine.

We didn't. To us, "world class" had no meaning. Nor did it connect to the incentive. Tell us that if we can increase productivity, that will improve the bottom line, which will increase profits, which will boost the stock price... Even though that's juuust a bit of a stretch for the efforts of little old me, yeah: I get it. 

Kind of. I was just one person. What I do, today, doesn't make that much of a difference towards achieving such a huge goal; nor does slacking off seem like it matters that much.

Carton feels that's the crux of the problem. Jobs are by their nature clearly defined. Each person has certain roles, responsibilities, and deadlines. Even if you're on a team, still: Work is ultimately individual. 

Yet huge, over-arching missions -- like becoming "preeminent" or "putting a man on the moon" or, in the case of Apple, "to bring the best personal computing products and support to students, educators, designers, scientists, engineers, businesspersons and consumers in over 140 countries around the world" -- are grand. Somewhat abstract. 

And definitely timeless: In terms of mission, Apple is thinking "forever," not, say, "until 2024."

The result is a paradox. The more sweeping and meaningful the vision, the more disconnected it tends to feel from the daily activities of the average employee. 

The Key is Connection

So why did Kennedy's vision for putting a man on the moon connect so well with the hundreds of thousands of people involved in the space program?

According to Carton, as a leader you absolutely should share a compelling picture of where the organization wants to go. But don't stop there.

The next step is to ensure each individual knows how their role connects to that vision.

And just as importantly, how each individual's role connects with the people around them.

Take me. I could have tried to be more productive, but I was just one person. Describing how my efforts helped other people on my crew be more productive? That would increase my sense of importance and impact.

Describing how our efforts helped downstream departments be more productive? That would spread our impact. Describing how that helped those departments help other facilities be more productive? That would increase the size of our collective ripple.

Looking back, it seems obvious, but at the time it didn't. All I knew was that even though I worked harder for the next couple of months, the stock price fell. There was no line of sight between my effort and the outcome I -- we -- hoped to achieve.

And we all lost interest. (In fact, some people worked less hard than they had before; they saw "losing" money they might have made as a takeaway and became, as Carton says, "dispirited.")

If you want people to work as a team -- if you want people to come together to embrace a shared mission -- by all means share that mission. Just understand that's the easy part.

The hard part is taking the time to ensure that every person understands how they contribute to that mission.

And more importantly, how each person contributes to helping other people -- especially the people around them -- contribute to that mission. 

Us? We didn't care if we let the CEO down. But we did care whether we let each other down. 

Connecting that sense of teamwork and responsibility to a larger mission may just be what your organization needs to achieve something truly great.