What is purpose and do your people have enough of it?

The global challenges we face are increasing people’s desire to make a difference and act with a greater sense of purpose, however for many it feels out of reach because they lead busy and complex lives. Furthermore, if they feel fatigued, burnt out or disengaged from their work they’ll be more prone to consider career and lifestyle alternatives, leading to the risk of abrupt resignation.

Helping employees gain a greater sense of meaning and purpose gives them incentive to stay - but how can employers provide that support in a way that’s sincere, effective and non-invasive? To answer this question, we need to understand purpose and the different forms it takes.

Take a moment to think about what purpose means for you in your life?

From my work, I’ve found that a group of 10 people will usually come up with 10 different answers, however their answers will fit into one of four categories that I’ll outline further on. These categories will help employers form responses that reduce disengagement and resignation risk.

Meaning & Purpose

Can you imagine a life of constant pleasure? A life without uncertainty, distress or pain? Intuitively, our achievements would count for less if they came all too easily. Psychologist, Paul Bloom, notes “the most satisfying lives are those which involve challenge, fear and struggle”, otherwise why would people choose to run marathons or spend weeks in miserable conditions climbing mountains? If the pursuit of a goal requires us, for example, to develop new skills, overcome setbacks and be persistent, then reaching for that goal will have far more significance and meaning.

Dr Lisa Williams of UNSW points to studies where people with higher levels of meaning in their lives have lower incidence of chronic disease, divorce and loneliness, and increased health, wellbeing and social connectivity. Global research by Aaker et al has found that meaning plays a bigger role in happiness for people on lower incomes, hypothesising it’s because the struggle to attain basic needs is greater.

Purpose is more about direction and focus. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines purpose as “the feeling of being determined to do or achieve something” or “the aim or goal of a person”, and goes on to define higher purpose as “a more meaningful reason to live, work etc.” 

Therefore, you can do something with purpose or be purposeful in the moment, and aim for a higher purpose in life, which is when we focus on helping others.

Auschwitz survivor, Dr Victor Frankl, noticed that those who survived had a purpose, a reason to live such as project, goal or relationship. And Greta Thunberg reports she generally sat alone at home with an eating disorder before finding meaning and purpose in her climate crusade.

For completeness, the term happiness is aligned with feelings of contentedness, satisfaction and fulfilment. It is actually your own assessment of your achievements in life. Dr Richard Morris from the University of Sydney points out that being happy in the moment is an emotion, and not the same as the concept of happiness which accrues over time.

In short, meaning is about the value, significance and importance of the things you do and purpose is about direction and goals. Pursuing a higher purpose is about helping others and less about self-reward, and happiness is your own view of how well you’ve done.

Four Types of Purposeful Activities

After analysing a range of works on this topic I still struggled to explain the relationship between people’s everyday actions and their sense of meaning and purpose. Furthermore, I felt it should be universally accessible and not just for a privileged few. It shouldn’t rely on an individual being wealthy, attaining a higher educational level or having the leeway to take a year off to meditate in a mountain cave.

With this in mind, I reviewed workshop attendee responses to arrive at the realisation that there are four types of purposeful activities:

  1. Living – Having a good quality-of-life with access to food, clothing, shelter, safety, employment, healthcare, education etc.
  2. Wellbeing – Life has good moments as you experience pleasure and joy, social connection, belonging and an absence of distress.
  3. Thriving – Being positive and excited about life, using your strengths to great effect, living your values and achieving goals.
  4. Giving – Contributing to something bigger than yourself by proactively helping others and making a difference.

Reflect again on the question posed earlier about what purpose means for you? Where does your answer fit in this framework? In the ideal world we’d have all four levels covered but the reality is that life often gets in the way!

One person in a workshop group saw their purpose as providing for their family, which correlates to the ‘living’ category. Another wanted to feel valued in their job (‘wellbeing’); another wanted to feel motivated to take on each day (‘thriving’) and another wanted to help the environment through their work (‘giving’). These categories are not sequential - meaning that you don’t need to tick the ‘living’ box in order to reach the other levels.

In listening to interviews with people who lived through the 1930s Great Depression in Australia, I was struck by the consistency of their stories. They said that, although basic living was hard, they were the best times of their lives! Why? Because they had to help each other and the connections, friendships and bonds they built became treasured. It’s proof that a higher sense of meaning and purpose can be achieved even when our basic quality of life is strained.

The Shift Employers Must Make

The good news is that there are measures employers can take to increase the ‘stickiness’ of their workers by helping them gain a greater sense of meaning and purpose - even if they lead busy and complex lives. It will require flexibility because some people see their job as a means to an end and focus on purposeful activities that are outside of work, whereas others may strongly align their work with purpose.

According to KPMG, 86 per cent of CEOs say that purpose is critical in forming a competitive employee value proposition, therefore it's reasonable to assume that employers who can deliver what employees want will be well placed in the war for talent. Larry Culp, CEO of GE told Fortune Media:

“Increasingly, recruitment and retention is about more than the corporate whole. It’s about position and purpose…There was a point in time when people said, ‘I want to work for GE.’ Today, people are more focused on addressing climate, or being in health care, or in aviation.”

Employers should put more effort into finding out what purpose means for their people in order to devise effective ways of partnering with them. Otherwise, employees may see their firm as just another employer - a contractual relationship - rather than a valued partner, heightening the risk of voluntary turnover.

This happened to me 14 years ago. My job was interesting, challenging and well paid, but I’d been on that career path for a while and had a personal crisis when I realised I didn’t want to get stuck on those ‘train tracks’ forever. When I told my boss I was leaving there was no amount of money that would have convinced me to stay.

What I lacked back then was perspective and process, a way of framing my situation and seeing the full range of options available. I just panicked and left. In hindsight I now know that clarifying what purpose means for us at a given point in time and being supported in our pursuit of it is invaluable, and it’s a very cost effective way for employers to reduce disengagement and turnover risk.

If you’d like to collect your thoughts and contribute to a better overall understanding of meaning and purpose, I invite you to do this mini-assessment.

About the Author

Phil Preston is a purpose development expert who helps people and organisations maximise their impact. You can find out more on his speaker website, or visit the business purpose project.

You might like to follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter or make contact via hello@philpreston.com.au

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