PURPOSE. It’s a loaded word. Both for corporations and individuals. And while today’s focus on purpose makes us think it’s a new concept, it’s not. For centuries, spiritualists, existentialists, religious scholars and the like have explored the purpose and meaning of life. Management guru Peter Drucker said, “The number of people who are really motivated by money is very small. Most people need to feel that they are here for a purpose, and unless an organization can connect to this need to leave something behind that makes this a better world, or at least a different one, it won’t be successful over time.”
When we think about our desire to connect and the basic human need to belong to something larger in light of the fear and, for many, the physical separation with work that the global pandemic has created, the Great Resignation – or whatever you personally label it – really is no surprise. Sheltering in place gave society a moment for pause. And as it did many people across the globe began to recognize we needed a new narrative for success: one that goes beyond money and productivity and includes purpose, well-being and belonging. One that brings mindfulness and intentionality out of the cloister and into our daily routines.
The promise of the digital landscape, big data and AI was transformational for both people and business. Yet practically these “advancements” have made work more transactional and less relational. Add in Zoom, Teams and Google Meetings as our primary forms of personal interaction and it’s easy to understand why so many people do not associate or have stopped associating work with community, satisfaction and validation, let alone belonging, happiness and fulfillment.
Since the industrial age, work has been positioned as the enemy of life. Consider the term work-life balance. It positions work as something apart from life. Yet, work is a part of life–a critical element that brings people a sense of achievement and fulfillment when it has meaning. If we think of balance as work and personal life balance or life balance, the message is changed with work positioned as a channel for living purpose. A way to define and actualize who we are alongside our personal lives.
To engage employees, a company must first clarify its higher raison d’être, or reason for being, and know why it exists beyond making money. When done well brand purpose communicates how a company creates or adds value to society. It’s rooted in what a business does and is broad enough to encompasses a social mission. Increased urgency around climate change and an amplified call for social justice and inequity have made connecting employees to purpose a very real, tangible problem for business. One that many attribute as the primary cause of the Great Resignation.
Communicating how a company acts in service to its customers, employees, investors, other stakeholders, the environment and society writ large is challenging. And cultivating employee well-being by connecting people to this higher order corporate purpose can be even more difficult. Especially given the micro traumas people have been experiencing during the global pandemic. The intent here is not in any way to downplay horrific trauma, but rather highlight that fear and disruption of daily routines have caused most people to question how they live, their value and more – and thereby experience some form of micro, if not macro, trauma as a result of COVID. While we most often think of trauma as a big event, trauma also can be something as seemingly insignificant as repeatedly being told we’re not doing something correctly, or we’re dreaming too big or our work adds no value.
While brand purpose and the way leadership lives this can motivate, engage and influence employees, how each employee actualizes their individual purpose at work is personal. And so it’s important for employers acknowledge not everyone is motivated by the same things at work—and that a paying job may not be the primary vehicle for fulfilling personal purpose. Some people seek to have impact at the societal level, others at an organizational level, and still others at a one-on-one level. Having some insight into employees’ individual purposes and the level at which they look to make a difference can help brands guide career advancement/choices and offer out-of-work opportunities that help people actualize their personal purposes in different ways on the job.
Importantly, despite what many models about purpose at work say, our client work has confirmed it’s also essential to accept that some people are content with their job simply being a source of income. It’s not that these people haven’t defined their personal purpose – it’s that they fulfill this in their personal life, not their work life. Importantly, however, this doesn’t mean that they don’t need to gain a sense of accomplishment and achievement while at work – or feel that the company they work for exists beyond earning money.
Whether a greater sense of purpose – or meaning – comes from work, our family, volunteering, a side-gig or something else, it has many benefits. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, has developed a framework for well-being that focuses on four pillars of a healthy mind. Decades of research have demonstrated that Awareness, Insight, Connection and Purpose foster our well-being. While each of these to varying degrees can be gained at work, Connection and Purpose are the most relevant.
Davidson defines Connection as a feeling of care and kinship toward other people, promoting supportive relationships and supportive interactions. Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are all about this. And we strongly believe and have seen that when people connect at work through shared purpose, it’s often easier for them to let go of unconscious biases and see people for who they are inside, rather than a public persona. Even as most of the reporting statistics for DEI center on gender, race, sexual orientation and other demographics, it’s essential to remember that hiring and crafting teams of like-minded people who look different from one another may still promote validation. Facilitating a genuinely supportive and compassionate environment that leads to measured risk-taking, greater productivity and excellence is not a check the box exercise. It requires intentionality and human over artificial intelligence. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that agencies and other creative businesses whose long-term success are inherently dependent on diversity of thought have been reflecting on this in the media.
Further, Davidson defines Purpose as being clear about your core values and deeper motivation and applying them in your daily life. While volunteer days, cause marketing and philanthropic programs may make people feel better about their employer, linking the mundane activities of day-to-day tasks with a meaningful value or motivation is the key to connecting employees to organizational purpose – even those who are there primarily because of their paycheck.
This article was originally published here and is re-published with the author's permission.
About the author:
Anne Bahr Thompson guides conscious leaders and boards — across brands, non-profits and agencies/consultancies — to connect more meaningfully with purpose. And to integrate a sustainability mindset and ethos of brand citizenship.
Gifted in seeing the potential in people and brands, Anne is a listener, collaborator and tireless innovator above all else. She is skilled at inviting others to gain new perspectives alongside her and at guiding them to bring these new possibilities to life.