Tapping Into Purpose

May 4, 2022

Everyone has a purpose.

— Dolly Parton

A key aspect of a manager’s job is to help employees succeed and achieve their full potential. Servant leadership is the embodiment of that perspective, and specific actions (such as training, feedback, and coaching) can support that approach. Those actions are most effective, though, when leaders first step back and take in the “big picture.”

It’s easy to guide someone to finish a project or other finite task. But those tasks alone don’t define someone’s professional life or career. Leaders need to ask each employee these questions:

  • Beyond completing project X and hitting deadline Y, what is your purpose at the organization?
  • What are your goals?
  • What do you want to achieve?

Unfortunately, too often managers focus on the company’s bottom line: how to maximize profits, how to cut costs, how to get more clients, how to make widgets faster, etc. Those things are important (after all, businesses are in business in order to make money!). But even though focusing on the money to the exclusion of other considerations can bring short-term financial gains, those gains usually come at a significant long-term cost. Without paying attention to and meeting employees’ needs and without tapping into purpose, organizations set the stage of disengagement, dissatisfaction, and turnover. That’s why the best leaders figure out how to help their employees pursue their purpose.

Purpose: What It Is — and Who Has It

The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose.

— Richard Grant

Purpose is more than just the pursuit of a paycheck. There are some people for whom the primary motivation for working is to get paid, but it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t have at least one other driver aside from a salary.

Purpose can take an infinite number of forms, because each individual has their own goals. For example, someone’s purpose could be one (or more) of the following:

  • A desire to be part of a team
  • The motivation to do work that is groundbreaking and innovative
  • An interest in contributing to an organization’s success
  • An impulse to do work that has a positive societal impact
  • The satisfaction of a job well done

It’s important to understand that every person can have a purpose. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how Millennials (and now the members of Generation Z) place a high value on jobs “that have purpose.” In those contexts, “purpose” is used as a shorthand for opportunities to “make the world a better place” through volunteering, donating to nonprofits, developing environmentally friendly products and services, supporting initiatives that target certain social issues, etc.

However, this conception of purpose has two problems. First, it fails to recognize the individuality of each person: it’s likely that any two individuals will have very different interests. For example, whatever their purposes are, Pat’s purpose is just as important to Pat as Terry’s is to Terry. Leaders who want to tap into their employees’ sense of purpose need to realize (and accept) that everyone is different.

Second, this conception dismisses older generations. Generation X employees have purpose, too, as do Baby Boomers and anyone else who isn’t a Millennial or from Generation Z. Although some generational “themes” do exist, they aren’t absolutes, and it’s important to remember that the idea of purpose transcends generational divides. Whether that purpose lies in one of those “make the world a better place” goals or takes another form entirely, a purpose is equally accessible to anyone of any age.

Why Is Tapping into Purpose Important?

The secret of success is constancy to purpose.

— Benjamin Disraeli

Purpose is what makes someone love their work and want to give it their all. Fulfilled purpose leads to happiness and engagement, which in turn can translate not only to excellent performance but also to enduring loyalty.

A purpose-driven workplace is one that enables employees to pursue activities and goals that are significant to them and provide them with meaning. Considering how much time people spend at their jobs, it makes sense that they want to find some meaning there. Unfortunately, for many people, their jobs don’t have the meaning and purpose that they seek.

Right now, the business world is in the middle of a staffing crisis. For the past several years, companies have been struggling to find and hire great employees, and now they are struggling to retain the employees they already have. The pandemic is playing a big role in this: living in these challenging and uncertain times (and perhaps dealing with medical, social, or financial programs at the same time) is making many people reevaluate their lives. Employees are bailing from their jobs at such high rates that a new term has arisen to describe this specific phenomenon: the Great Resignation. It is possible to mitigate this trend, though.

First, managers should ask each employee, “What is your purpose? What do you want to accomplish?” then do what they can to support each employee’s efforts to fulfill that purpose. If career advancement is someone’s goal, for example, help them build their leadership skills. If an employee wants to do more innovative work, help them find (or develop) projects that give them opportunities to innovate.

Obviously “do what they can” has the modifier “within reason” attached to it. For example, if someone says that they seek purpose in efforts to improve literacy, and their organization is a steel manufacturer, it may not be possible to find ways for the employee to pursue that purpose in their role — and of course they can’t expect the company to retool its core function to accommodate that goal. In this case, if they place a very high priority on doing work that has a direct impact on that purpose, perhaps a steel manufacturer isn’t the best fit for them.

Whether or not an employee is able to directly pursue their purpose in their jobs, though, managers can encourage them to find it elsewhere. An employee who’s interested in literacy programs, for example, might volunteer for a local literacy group (and, if the organization offers paid volunteer days, some of that volunteer time could take place during regular work hours).

Managers should have yearly conversations with their employees about their long-term personal and professional goals and discuss what opportunities exist within the organization to help them grow in one or both areas. When employees can pursue such opportunities — and learn how to make the connection between their hopes and dreams and their everyday tasks — they are likely to be more engaged (and stay longer) because they know that they are learning and growing into what they hope to become. That’s the power of tapping into purpose.

Final Thoughts

Do your homework. Find your voice. Be authentic. And then dive in with purpose.

— Julie Foudy

It’s important to remember that purpose doesn’t exist only in the office. Managers can’t dictate what their employees do in their personal lives, but managers can encourage and support employees’ efforts to pursue purpose outside the office. (And, as human beings, managers can definitely seek purpose in the nonwork aspects of their own lives — in their relationships with family and friends, in their social activities, etc.)

Good managers understand that they need to treat employees as critical — and valued — components of the organization. They also understand that employees each have their own individual motivations and goals. By helping employees to tap into their purpose, leaders can help those employees find the satisfaction and engagement they need to succeed in their roles and careers.

Written by: Valerie Grubb

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