It's a Good Thing When Your Employees Want to Find a Greater "Purpose" in Their Work


I always thought that finding purpose in our life and work was important, but I never knew it could be so critical to the point of lowering our risk of death by 15 percent.

Fotolia_73732793_S.jpgThis jumped out at me from a recent story in the Harvard Business Review by Dan Pontefract titled You're Never Done Finding Purpose at Work. In it, he makes this point that finding your "purpose" is critical to everyone and anyone who is working for a living:  

I have found that whether we enjoy our work often boils down to how our job fits with our sense of purpose. Where we work, the role we hold, our broader sense of purpose — all three are subject to change. Thus if we want to stay in the “sweet spot” among these three, we must not fear career transitions or even change itself; indeed, we must seek them out."

Dan Pontefract's point is pretty simple: We all need to have purpose in our lives, particularly in our jobs and careers. This is a big thing for the Millennial generation, but really, it's something that is important for everyone in the workplace no matter what age or career stage they may be at.

But as important as purpose is, it's surprising how few people actually find it in the work they do.

How a sense of "purpose" can impact your workforce

Last fall, Josh Bersin dug into this issue and found some research from Imperative that indicated that only 28 percent of the 150 million strong U.S. workforce is "purpose-driven."

So, what about everyone else?

Well, Bersin went on to quote this passage from the Imperative study, and it's a little depressing: 

The remaining 72 percent of the workforce define work around financial gain or achieving social status and advancement. This is an estimated 108 million people. They are focused on extrinsic rewards and have a more transactional relationship with work. They see work as a means to and end versus and end in itself." 

He listed a few trends that popped out of the report, and they gave a little more insight into how "purpose" manifests itself in the workplace:

  • Only 20 percent of tech workers are “purpose oriented.
  • Women and people over 55 are much more likely to be “purpose oriented.”  In fact the older you get, the more purpose-oriented you become.
  • Only 50 percent of CEO’s are “purpose oriented.”  (Probably the ones who take time and energy to focus on their people.)  And only 39 percent of VP’s are.  (They’re striving to get ahead I’d imagine.)
  • Purpose oriented people have much deeper relationships at work (69 percent vs. 45 percent) - which tells us that “connecting with people at work” might be one of the keys here.
  • Artists are by far the most purpose-oriented (almost 2X higher than the average), followed by professionals. Laborers and hourly workers are the lowest, as you might imagine. But service workers are above average in purpose-orientation!

Here's how this impacts your employees

Only half of CEO's are purpose oriented? Wow, I would have thought that number would be a lot higher, and I'm sure the lack of purpose in so many CEO's trickles down to the workers in their organizations, too. 

But as Dan Pontefracts notes in his HBR article, "No one lives in the purpose mindset all the time," because "spending too much time in the career or job mindset is destructive. You are certain to be dissatisfied with your job, and the mindsets can end up harming your reputation, chances of promotion, and long-term prospects."

He adds:

Life is short. You deserve to work in a role, and for an organization, where your personal purpose shines. But you cannot leave it up to the organization, your boss, or your team. It really does come down to you defining and enacting your purpose."


And Josh Bersin offers some takeaways ("a few profound findings") on purpose and how you should think about it in relationship to your own employees: 

  1. If you’re an employer, you should seek out people who “want to do the job you’re hiring for” — people who love it for its own sake, people who love your company’s mission, and people who genuinely like to help others.  These people are relatively easy to spot, and while they may not be the most “ambitious” (many are), these are clues you can spot. 
  2. If you’re and HR manager or business leader, you should work hard to create jobs that can offer meaning to people. Give people autonomy and freedom to create and innovate; give them flexibility to work the way they want;  thank them regularly for their efforts; and give them a clear mission and view of the organization’s goals so they can find their own purpose at work.
  3. If you’re a recruiter or hiring manager, remember to ask people “why are you applying for this job?” This simple question will tell you about someone’s purpose-orientation, and give you a clue as to how well they will adapt, grow, and contribute to your organization.
  4. If you are a job seeker (and aren’t we all?), take some time to rethink your own motivation. What do you really want to get out of work?  How do you define your own measure of “success”?  Can you think more about your impact on others and less about your personal gain? Are there tasks, jobs, organizations that really excite you that you can look for?

Something everyone should strive for

Millennials keep telling us how important meaning and purpose is, and I think many leaders simply tune that talks out as yet another thing that makes MIllennials different from other employees, but just because they keep mentioning it doesn't make it any less relevant.

The fact is, having a sense of purpose is something everyone should strive for, and that every executive should want in all the member of their workforce. 

Maybe this is a good time to acknowledge that maybe our youngest workers are on to something here. I think they are, because in my book, a workers with a strong sense of purpose are exactly the kind of employees you want throughout your organization.

People with purpose simply work better and are more engaged — and we can all agree that we need a lot more of that.

About The Author

John Hollon is Checkster's Vice President for Content. He is an award-winning journalist and nationally-recognized expert on leadership, talent management and smart workforce practices who previously was Vice President of Editorial and the founding editor of Before that, John was Editor of Workforce Management magazine, the longest published HR and talent management publication in the U.S.