Purpose at Work: What it is, Why it Matters and How to Cultivate it

Purpose at Work: What it is, Why it Matters and How to Cultivate it

“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
– Theodore Roosevelt

This past week I interviewed a top leader in retail whose company is on the cusp of a revolutionary transformation. “What,” I asked him, “will be the magic potion to this transformation really taking hold?” He didn’t miss a beat when his words tumbled out, “The energy of our people. Our people need to re-find that fire in their bellies that got lost somewhere along the way. Without that energy, this transformation we are planning will never fly.”

What a smart man!

Indeed, no transformation – or long-term strategy or company culture or anything involving humans – can be successful without that initiative having meaning for the people who are involved. And this doesn’t mean telling our people why this should matter to them: it means finding out what matters to them and inviting them to co-create the common purpose together.

Over the years I’ve written about meaning and purpose in the workplace many times, and since then these topics have seemingly only grown in importance.

There are several reasons for this. For one, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent rise of remote work arrangements resulted in a fundamental shift in how we work, which in turn has left people feeling socially isolated and lonely. Additionally, the years of disruption brought on by the pandemic, along with several other social, political, and economic shakeups, have caused people to re-evaluate what they want from work, with many seeking assurances that what we do has some greater value. This is reflected in a number of recent employee trends: according to a recent report from Gartner, 82% of employees say it’s important for their organization to see them as a person, not just an employee, though only 45% of employees believe their organization sees them this way.

This begs the question though: what does it mean to find purpose at work, and how can employers help their team find it?

Understanding Purpose at Work

“An extraordinary business starts with extraordinary people.
Extraordinary people start with purpose.”
– Jesper Lowgren

Put simply, purpose in work is the intrinsic sense of fulfillment that employees gain from doing work that’s meaningful to them. Most people spend the majority of their waking hours working, so naturally, many of us want to believe that what they do during those hours has some value beyond earning a paycheck. This sense of value can take various forms: some people just want to know that their work contributes to the overall success of their organization, while others want to believe that what they do has a positive impact on the world. Regardless, finding that unique sense of purpose can be a source of empowerment, motivating people to bring their best selves to their workplace.

This is why we must as leaders take a stand and help our people cultivate a stronger sense of meaning at work. Not only is it the human and right thing to do and therefore the only reason I personally would need, but it’s also essential to bottom-line results. When a team member can find meaning in their daily work tasks, they are more likely to approach those tasks with their full attention and a firm understanding of their organization’s goals. A strong sense of purpose also results in a greater sense of job satisfaction, which builds loyalty and incentivizes employees to work longer hours and take fewer sick days. Team alignment is another positive effect, as when a team member feels a sense of meaning in their work, they are more likely to support their colleagues and help them feel the same.  Finally, with all of these purpose-filled individuals and teams running around, the world becomes a safer place to be – if only in that microcosm.

Purpose at work is therefore a win-win-win-win-win scenario: the individual leaders, teams, the organization, and society at large all benefit.

Cultivating Purpose in the Workplace

“Never has there been a more exciting time for all of us to explore
this next great frontier where the boundaries between work and higher purpose
are merging into one, where doing good really is good for business.”
– Richard Branson

Of course, cultivating a strong sense of purpose can be challenging, as meaning-making is a complex and collaborative process. Purpose is a personal matter, and workers can take steps to find greater meaning in their roles, from practicing mindfulness to investing more in their relationships. Yet it is ultimately up to company leaders to role model and create an environment where their people feel supported and can more easily connect what they do with some wider purpose. This requires a fundamental change in how some leaders view work, as workplace managers are so focused on moving the ball down the field that they rarely take the time to consider how their employees are feeling. Anxious to get to the “results,” some leaders immediately default to offering higher pay or more benefits even when it is obvious that what employees want is to be respected, appreciated, and fundamentally important to their organization’s success.

It’s usually at some point afterward that companies end up calling leadership advisors such as myself to help fix the mess that not prioritizing what employees wanted in the first place can cause: silos, more talking than doing, conflict, and risk-aversion – among others. Such wreckage ends up costing the organization much more in time, money and energy than if they had merely made the space to create more meaning for their people in the first place.

The truth is that leaders often avoid discussing matters of purpose because doing so would involve potentially uncomfortable conversations with employees. It requires a more compassionate, human-centric approach to leadership, one that makes the effort to forge meaningful relationships with employees to help them discover their “why”, connecting the dots to identify how a person’s efforts result in a tangible, positive impact on others, whether it be for their colleagues inside the organization, external stakeholders, or the world at large. This not only serves to empower employees but strengthens one’s ability as a leader, helping them move beyond either/or thinking (i.e., “Either I drive performance at all costs or I take care of my employee’s personal needs”) to instead embrace both/and thinking.

Such a concept is at the heart of the work we at Authentic Leadership International design and roll out for leaders and teams: higher-level “soft” skills are introduced and practiced as a way of getting the “hard” stuff done in a more productive and meaningful way. Even right there in the workshops, which always result in tangible, co-created next steps. Intertwining the hard and soft stuff always results in greater impact.

Cultivating a sense of purpose at work is no easy task, however. It takes time to get there. Yet the value of the result is undeniable. When people feel that their work has some greater value, they are encouraged to meet that heightened value in terms of the quality of their work. This is good for the workers, good for their employers, and good for the world.

It is up to each of us to create an environment where everyone can find that special sense of purpose! We all deserve it.

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