Talent Show

Bust these 5 myths about the purpose of work to engage employees

Conveying a sense of purpose in employment can entail breaking down big barriers for engagement.

Having attended my fair share of conferences, I can report with conviction that standing-room-only breakout sessions are a rarity. 

But this was in fact the case during Aaron Hurst’s workshop “Connecting Company Purpose with Corporate Responsibility & Engagement” at last month's GreenBiz Forum 15.

The room was packed, everyone gripped by the presentation.  Aaron is the CEO of career technology platform Imperative, founder of pro bono work facilitator the Taproot Foundation and author of The Purpose Economy.  The book and his workshop explain how value in the new economy lies in establishing purpose for employees and customers through serving needs greater than their own, enabling personal growth and building community. 

Sustainability leaders should not underestimate the value of strengthening purpose. Research by PwC shows that 10-15 percent of the global workforce is disconnected, with low levels of engagement and a high likelihood to leave their organizations. By enriching employees’ sense of purpose, leadership can tap into latent potential and boost retention. 

The same PwC report cites a study by the Corporate Executive Board, showing committed employees put in 57 percent more effort and are 87 percent less likely to resign than their disconnected counterparts.

One piece Aaron emphasized is that to empower your organization to thrive with purpose, it is first critical to understand and debunk certain myths about purpose at work:

1. Purpose is a cause

Purpose is not a cause, it is an approach to work and serving others. The greatest barrier to individuals seeking purpose is the ubiquitous belief that they need to be working for a "cause."

Many people with causes in their lives have no purpose and conversely, many professionals with tremendous purpose in their work are not associated with any cause.  Purpose is about finding and working in a direction, not about the destination.

2. There are "purpose" jobs

You can find purpose in any job. It is all in how you approach it.

What we do is not nearly as important as how we do it and what attitude we bring to the work. As the saying states, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

What we get from work has more to do with us than the work itself.

3. Purpose is easy

Purpose requires giving of yourself.  Running a marathon hurts and yet, completing a marathon is something that many report as being incredibly meaningful.

The relationship between pain and gain holds true in doing any work where we are experiencing high levels of purpose.

Even when doing work that is making a big impact, if there is no skin in the game, the depth of purpose is diminished.

4. Purpose is a luxury

Purpose is a universal need, not a luxury for the wealthy. Even those in challenging situations still make it a priority.

It turns out that in many ways, the prioritization of purpose is inversely correlated with wealth. Money often conflicts with finding purpose, as it creates a false substitute for defining success. 

5. Purpose is a revelation

Purpose is a journey. It doesn’t come as a revelation from above, but from living life awake and seeking new experiences.

So many of us who are looking for purpose think we have to find our one true calling, but the idea of having a destiny and revelation is part of contemporary mythology.

How to instill purpose in your organization

Employees are telling us that providing products and services that have a meaningful impact on customers (89 percent) and society (84 percent) are activities that most contribute to organizational purpose (Deloitte 2014).

Sustainability leaders are key in communicating how internal roles, no matter how big or small, contribute to the positive outward impacts of their company. 

Sense of purpose is also bolstered by increasing trust and flexibility between team members, and ensuring team leaders convey positive energy and recognition.

Aaron talks about the Founder of Cornerstone Capital, Erika Karp’s approach: “She asks people if they had a good day. If they say yes, she asks them what was the moment that made it good...That is the first step. Then over the coming weeks and months she works with them to refine their job to maximize the number of these purpose moments they experience.” 

What I admire about this approach is that it eliminates the mystique surrounding sense of purpose, simplifying it into a single question we should all be asking customers, team members and ourselves.