Purpose at work

Is it a fad or here to stay?

For quite some time to push for focusing stronger on purpose emerged more and more in the domain of leadership development. At the same time, I have heard people in my network saying that it is only another hype being pushed into organisations, and it will fade away.  Very recently I came across an interesting study McKinsey conducted, this seems to suggest that a focus on purpose for employee engagement is here to stay.

Purpose is here to stay

Why would I say that?

My judgement is based on a few key messages for that study:

  • Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. Employers need to help meet this need or be prepared to lose talent to companies that will.

  • When we asked if people are living their purpose in their day-to-day work, the gap between executives and others mushroomed. Whereas 85 percent of execs and upper management said that they are living their purpose at work, only 15 percent of frontline managers and frontline employees agreed.

  • These less satisfied respondents reported lower average work and life outcomes than more satisfied peers did—everything from reduced feelings of energy and life satisfaction to lower engagement, satisfaction, and excitement about work.

In one of my previous blogs I wrote about the research done by Daniel Pink on the subject of intrinsic motivation. In his work he distilled three key ingredients which drive intrinsic motivation and are essential in modern organisations were cognitive engagement in the work is necessary. (He did not describe this as a blanket solution as he differentiates between work that needs cognitive engagement and other work that requires execution of predefined processes were for the latter performance incentive systems still work well)

The three elements he lists are as follows:

  • autonomy, being allowed to determine a lot about our work ourselves.
  • mastery, working on tasks which enable us to grow our skills and demonstrate them.
  • purpose, having a clear understanding of the deeper meaning of our work.


The interesting aspect is that most top leaders seem to live their purpose at work, yet lower levels of the organization appear to be hardly affected. What is happening or better not happening that people in lower levels of organizations are mostly not feeling fulfilled (aka not living their purpose) in their everyday work? And here is the challenge: Whenever I speak with senior leaders, they tell me how important engagement at all levels of their organization is for them. So, why is there this gap? In some conversations about giving meaning to work thus enabling people at all levels to recognise their purpose in life and at work, I hear that this should be managed by HR or Learning & Development. I do not share that view. I am convinced it is much better to have conversations and explorations of meaning and purpose in the actual context of work and life. And if leaders are committed to maintain or enhance engagement in their organization, I would strongly recommend they themselves taking the initiative and care about that in their own department or teams.

A great example how it could work

A great example of an extraordinarily successful organisation is Unilever. The CHRO, Lenna Nair has spoken in an interview with Forbes about their commitment to provide all employees the opportunity to explore their purpose: How Unilever Develops Leaders To Be A Force For Good 

So, how can you start this exploration of purpose with members of your organisation?

Start the journey

I assume here that you have been through an explorative process yourself to find your purpose. (If not just get in touch with me I can provide the right support for you individually). When starting the quest in your organisation for everyone’s purpose in life you need to create the awareness that it is more a journey (as you may have experienced it yourself) rather than getting to a point of sudden ‘enlightenment’.

Using a team-day to dive deeper than operational discussions may be a good context. It all starts with taking time for reflection on the question: “why are you here?” Sometimes this question may be too abstract to find a meaningful answer. Therefore, the following question may be another good entry: “Which of the things you are engaged in are most exciting?” Or another one: “At what moment in your work or activities do you feel a deep sense of fulfilment?”

Entering this kind of discussion in a workshop you may want to use one of the following videos to set the context. I found these two TED talks extremely helpful and inspiring.

Sometimes people tell me that a particular purpose statement was too abstract as it did not immediately express a particular occupation or activity. At the end of the day, it does not matter how abstract or close to what people’s description of their purpose in life is. The key is that it deeply resonates with them and their real work.

"What if?" It is still a win!

Of course, some people may not have any interest at all in such reflections. That is ok but it should not lead to the conclusion that you should not even raise the point at all levels in your organisation. It may well help people to contextualise their work better and (re)discover the deeper meaning and purpose in it. This in turn, see the McKinsey study again, will enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement.

Another scenario or outcome could be that people may conclude that they need to change jobs. That thought may be unwelcome! However, if you can help your people to have a more fulfilling life and work experience and find a job within the organisation that fits them better it will be a massive gain for both them and the company/your team by retaining people at a higher level of engagement rather than having staff at lower motivation and not really engaged. It should really be a Win-Win.

Support is near by

Now, if you like to pursue such a path and work with your team/organisation or individuals to find their purpose and meaning for their work and life, get in touch with me and we can work out a plan that best fits your context. We can also partner to make it work in your team workshop.

And as always, if you are interested to explore this further, please …

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