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Purpose: finding the why in work

Last year we published The Great Workplace Shakeup. Our guide to redesigning the employee experience, post-pandemic. It’s about building workplaces fit for the future, centered around the concepts of connection, flexibility, vision, and purpose.

We talk about the world of work undergoing a profound change. A ‘great awakening’ if you like, for both employers and employees.

Tired from years of normalised burnout and seeking more sustainable alternatives, people are rethinking their purpose, priorities, and impact, and asking big existential questions about what fulfilment really means – both in and out of the workplace. At the heart of these questions is a renewed sense of how much time and energy we dedicate to work, and a desire to see ourselves rewarded beyond remuneration.

It’s not a question about the value of work. We all know in a practical sense, having a job is vital to survival. It’s a question of:

Why am I doing this specifically?

What is it about this job that gets me up in the morning? What is my purpose? And does my purpose align with where I am in my life right now?

The great awakening

People are increasingly looking to businesses and the private sector to tackle some of society’s biggest problems, hoping innovation unlocks solutions to things like the climate crisis and social inequality.

Against a backdrop of deep uncertainty, it’s no wonder employees want to know the business they work for cares about them, the world, and their impact on both.

There is a growing trend among progressive brands to either adopt or outright provide a sense of purpose themselves. One recent high profile example is American clothing brand Patagonia. Company Founder Yvon Chouinard made headlines in September this year with news he was going to “give the company away”.

Source: New York Times

“Rather than selling the company or taking it public, Mr. Chouinard, his wife and two adult children have transferred their ownership of Patagonia, valued at about $3 billion, to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization. They were created to preserve the company’s independence and ensure that all of its profits — some $100 million a year — are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe.”

“The unusual move comes at a moment of growing scrutiny for billionaires and corporations, whose rhetoric about making the world a better place is often overshadowed by their contributions to the very problems they claim to want to solve.”

The search for meaning

Global management consulting firm McKinsey says: “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.”

They surveyed over a thousand American workers to understand the importance of purpose in the workplace. What they found is that purpose can be looked at in three different ways:

Source: McKinsey

“If an employee gets very little purpose from their work, the size of the middle circle will be smaller. By contrast, if another person finds their work very purposeful, it will be larger. Intuitively, then, the size of the middle circle represents the portion of one’s purpose that is accessible by work—and also how much purpose employees want from their work—and it may grow or shrink. Employers should view this middle circle as a target they strive to understand and meet. They should influence the expansion of this circle if they can.”

  • Naina Dhingra, Andrew Samo, Bill Schaninger, Matt Schrimper; McKinsey

Asking the big questions

Existential questions come up a lot more frequently in a work context than they used to. Both employers and employees are much more attuned and receptive to them now. And it’s good to explore big questions, because the answers you find may potentially be life altering. Which is where coaching comes in.

How do you align work, values, and purpose in a complex, ever changing world? How do you convince your actions to meet your thoughts?

Existential questions might be front of mind for many, but what if they aren’t? What if increasing a person’s personal wealth or simply achieving security in a job they don’t have to worry about is the only apparent, meaningful purpose in their life?

Whether you’re changing the world for the better or providing for your family, if you feel like you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing, more power to you. It’s when you don’t that there’s a problem.

What unfortunately does tend to happen – to all of us – is you get older. This is inevitable. You’re then faced with your own mortality. Also inevitable. Coming to this realisation often triggers certain questions:

What have I contributed? What did I stand for? How will people remember me?

Thing is, people now are faced with these sorts of questions much earlier in life. Mainly because the world appears to be burning in a new and terrifying way every day, and we can stream it all live on our phones. Look at the news and it is crisis upon crisis upon crisis.

Even if you’re nowhere near the twilight of your career, given the state of the world, it’s perfectly natural to question whether what you’re doing with your limited time of earth is worthwhile. At least, that’s what I got from speaking to our Coaching Practice Lead, Dr. Albert Viljoen.

What does it mean to have purpose?

AV: In a general sense, purpose is a fundamental need that’s built into who we are. You see it in kids as they start growing up, they get to about 2 and start wanting to claim things as “mine, this is mine, I want to do it my way!” It’s that sense of claiming your place in the world. Without a sense of purpose, we’re a little bit unmoored.

Being connected to a purpose seems to be important for us to feel a sense of vitality, and direction, and place. In some ways, the question of purpose is an existential one. You’re essentially asking “Why am I here?” which has huge implications. But it also has an impact on how you do the little things.

Why is purpose important in the workplace?

AV: Because we spend most of our time there! If your work isn’t aligned to some form of meaning, it’s really hard to sustain energy. We need a clear ‘why’. Only it doesn’t have to be a big one. For some people, having or making enough more money is a strong enough purpose to keep them going.

Purpose infuses energy in you to work. And it creates a kind of energetic loop. Start, and it keeps you going. If you don’t have a lot of motivational energy, having a purpose can help. Or if you feel quite low, purpose can enable you to get stuff done, because you have a clear idea of why you’re doing it.

What can employers do to cultivate a sense of purpose?

AV: Businesses need to recognise that whatever they feel their purpose is, every individual has their own reasons for why they’re there. One mistake employers often make is they want everyone to rally around the businesses purpose, instead of aligning with each individual’s purposes and seeing how that serves the business.

Being clear about how individual purposes might be different, and yet still contribute to the broader purpose of the business is important because it helps employees find their own energy in it. Otherwise, there may be a clash.

Think about it like a ship: it’s heading to a certain destination, you might not be desperately interested in where exactly you’re going, but you’re really keen to be a good rower or engineer or the best navigator you can be. Your rationale and contributions might look very different from the person stood next to you, but you’re just as important and valuable as one another.

How do I find my purpose?

TF: There’s a Japanese concept – Ikigai – that can help with this. Your purpose in life can be found at the centre of this diagram, at the intersection of four things:

  1. What you love
  2. What you’re good at
  3. What the world needs
  4. What you can be paid for

AV: There’s a temptation to think you need to have all of these elements in place to have any purpose. So the minute you miss one element, you’re off track. Everyone wants their job to be that perfect combination of what they love, what they can get paid for, and what the world needs. But, well, that’s not necessarily realistic. If you’re constantly measuring your current role against a perfect ideal, you might feel more dissatisfied than you deserve to. Sometimes, it’s enough just to have a few of those needs met.

Purpose also doesn’t always mean lofty goals, ambitious mission statements, or some kind of profound global impact. Maybe the most meaningful action you could take in your day is to bake a cake. Maybe putting dinner on the table every night is the only real purpose you need or that matters to you.

What’s the meaning of life?

AV: The question of purpose is linked to: “why am I on this planet?” We often don’t stop to answer it and we don’t necessarily need to. At some level, it’s an opening question that provokes a lot of subsequent questions around why we do the things we do.

As an example, if someone comes to the coaching room in a typical mid-life transition – kids have left home, they’ve already achieved a lot of their life purpose by being a parent, career’s gone well, they’ve made money and have a house, a stable family life, one or two holidays a year – they often get to a point of saying “I don’t really know why I’m here anymore.”

And that usually opens up bigger questions: “What am I contributing to the world? What am I leaving behind?” We don’t really ask those questions in our twenties. Well, maybe millennials do.

A good question you can ask yourself to get clear on your purpose and give life meaning is:

“When things get tough, what keeps me going?”

Purpose supports us with energy to get through difficulty. And difficulty is an inevitable fact of life. When work is tough, if we connect it to a purpose we can push through. Because we have a clear sense of where we’re going. And hopefully, that place is somewhere better. Making the world better, becoming better ourselves – whatever ‘better’ means for us in that context.

I think there’s a bit of stigma if you haven’t worked out the secret to life just yet or you’re not aligned with some noble, lofty purpose. We kind of shame ourselves for being normal and happy and in our own lane. If it gets you going, if it gives you a sense of energy, if you feel a sense of accomplishment, you’ve probably already got a pretty good purpose.