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.

Would you like more bursts of leadership inspiration to empower & ignite your week? Sign up here to access my FREE, impactful Weekly Bolder Moves.

Purpose Statement

Why You Need a Purpose Statement – and How To Write Yours

Last month, I wrote about knowing your “why.”  Knowing your why is crucial to anything you do.

It can help:

  • Inspire you to remain focused on what’s really important
  • Deepen your capacity for meaningful introspection
  • Guide you to set intentions which will help you become all that you are meant to be
  • Help you make decisions more effectively – and mindfully
  • Save you time and energy by avoiding wasted effort on meaningless things
  • Help you create much more joy, fulfillment and, yes, purpose in your life

The deeper we can get down on the “why” scale, the better. “Getting ahead”, for example, will only keep us like a hamster in a wheel.

“Helping women leaders over 40 understand their innate worth”, however, will help us to narrow down our activities to those helping move this “why” forward.

Purpose StatementOne concrete way to get crystal clear on our why is to have a purpose statement.

This is different than a mission statement.

Forbes contributor Steve Cooper makes the analogy of your purpose being like your guiding light when the going gets tough. He also makes an important distinction between your personal purpose and a business mission:

“It might be easy to understand that your business mission is to create a suite of apps that will help educate children, but that doesn’t answer the question of why you are doing it.

What’s your personal mission?”

-Steve Cooper

The Oxford Dictionary refers to “purpose” as “The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.” In other words, your purpose is very closely linked with your “why”.

A brief history on personal purpose statements…

Decades ago, the renowned author Stephen Covey recommended that we create a “purpose statement” as part of his now infamous 7 Habits of Highly Successful People –specifically, Habit #2: begin with the end in mind.

Covey observed that people were working harder and harder without enjoying the fruits of their efforts. Why? A deficiency of clarity and vision. He compared this to “pushing a rope with all of their might.”

How many times have we done the same? Pushing and pushing, like being on a continuous treadmill – thinking we are taking all the right actions and yet wondering why we are still so unhappy.

It’s because either we are doing the right things for the wrong reasons or because we are doing the wrong things. Either way, when we are not clear on our purpose, things get all muddled up in our heads and we begin living someone else’s life – or, at least, the life we think we are supposed to be living according to society’s or someone else’s standards.

We have forgotten who we are and why we are here.Purpose Statement

Purpose statements can help with that.

Today, some of the world’s most powerful leaders use purpose statements to set the stage for greater alignment with self, for growth and ultimately, for higher levels of success and fulfillment.

Here are some sample purpose statements from well-known business leaders, courtesy of this Fast Company article:

Sir Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group:

“To have fun in [my] journey through life and learn from [my] mistakes.”

Oprah Winfrey, founder of OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network:

“To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.”

Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup Company:

“To serve as a leader, live a balanced life, and apply ethical principles to make a significant difference.”

A purpose statement isn’t set in stone – a ‘one and done’ exercise. In fact, your purpose statement is meant to be revisited, revised…and sometimes entirely re-written. As you transform and understand more about yourself, so, too will your purpose statement evolve!

To take more of a hand in your own evolution, please sign up here to access my free Weekly Bold Move.

Workplace culture | Corporate culture in the workplace | Inclusion in the workplace

Leaders, Inclusiveness Improves Corporate Culture

“Our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff, like great customer service or building a great long-term brand, or empowering passionate employees and customers will happen on its own.”
– Tony Hsieh CEO, Zappos

Recent news headlines have given us much to think about when it comes to what’s accepted within an organization’s culture. It begs the question: What would it be like if all workplace cultures were built on mutual respect and openness? And how do we make that happen?

Let’s start by understanding the importance of culture in business and then consider how leaders can be the catalysts for positive change in their specific organizations.

Culture: The “Immune System” Of The Workplace

There are myriads of ways that workplace culture impacts an organization’s short- and long-term success. In a recent article on Time.com, Arianna Huffington referred to corporate culture as a company’s “immune system.”

When a workplace culture is healthy, it values and celebrates each person’s contributions, so current employees want to stay and potential employees are eager to come on board. Conversely, an unhealthy culture will damage a company’s reputation and make employees more prone to the “illnesses” of human nature.

The more fit and strong the culture at your organization, the more easily employees can recognize the onset of these issues and take steps to remedy them.

What Makes A Healthy Workplace Culture?

Rather than focus on negatives, here are a few of the positive aspects that define a fit and thriving corporate culture. If they don’t necessarily describe your company right now, consider how you might incorporate them going forward, starting with your teams.

  • Diversity – Do you find yourself (or those within your organization) saying, “That’s the way we’ve always done it”? No more! This is essential if you want to foster well-being and improve performance. Diversity enables new thoughts, ideas, and possibilities to emerge so that you’re continually thinking, looking, and moving forward.
  • Transparency – In a culture of openness, you can spot issues and correct them before they create a crisis. Transparency makes it safe for people to admit their mistakes, learn from them, and use those lessons to benefit the organization. Be honest – could your organization benefit from greater levels of transparency?
  • A Larger Purpose – Millennials, in particular, thrive in a culture where principles are as important as profits. But doesn’t everyone want to feel they’re part of something beneficial -not only for customers but for the world as a whole? Where does your organization stand on this?

Your Role As A Leader: Build Inclusiveness

If a healthy corporate culture could be summed up in one word, it’s “inclusiveness.” An Inc.com article states that inclusive workplace cultures are healthier, more productive, and make team members feel more valued.

However, leaders can’t always gauge their efforts at inclusiveness, according to a ten-year study by leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. So here are some key benchmarks to help you be a more inclusive leader and create a healthier corporate culture:

  1. Try to ignore your ego. – It’s human nature to think of ourselves first, but our role as leaders is to keep the focus on success for our team and for our organization as a whole. When you make this shift toward intellectual humility, you almost automatically create inclusiveness.
  2. Remember the value of listening. – As a leader, there’s a time to talk. But often, the way to reach the best ideas and solutions is to listen, and you create inclusiveness when you do. This doesn’t mean you have to use every suggestion, but you should always be willing to at least hear them.
  3. Encourage collaboration on your teams. – When your team members contribute to a project or solve an issue, they gain a great sense of motivation and accomplishment. Bill Gates said, “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” And empowerment often starts with collaboration.

Every person deserves to work in a culture where they are valued, supported, empowered, and encouraged to be all they can be. As leaders, we play a major role in creating this safe and nurturing environment not only for the benefit of our employees but for the success of our companies in the long term. Are you ready for the challenge?

Looking for ways to be a bold leader who is a catalyst for creating a healthier, more inclusive culture within your organization? Sign up here to access my free Weekly Bold Move.