Feeling a sense of purpose is important when you’re coming to work each day.
I believe that leaders have a purpose built-in to their roles – to lead and support their people.
But for team members in many organisations, a sense of purpose can be harder to come by, especially when the work is not overly significant or interesting.
In this post, I’ll take a look at why a sense of purpose matters, and some practical ways to help your people find it.
Is a Sense of Purpose Really That Important?
Purpose is included as a major factor in several motivation theories and models, such as Dan Pink’s “Drive”.
It also shows itself as the concept of Task Significance in the foundational Job Characteristics model. That is, the degree to which someone can see the impact that their work has on the company, the team or customers.
I also see purpose coming up as part of the Status driver within David Rock’s SCARF model. Status can be achieved partly by doing work that is meaningful, and being perceived as someone who is making an impact.
Even if you go as far back as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I believe that esteem (status, feeling valued) and self-actualisation (trying to be the best version of yourself) needs relate to having a clear sense of purpose.
As you can see, there are links to the importance of a sense of purpose reinforced by research and theory.
But theory is only one part of the equation – personal experience should not be ignored.
When I have felt particularly motivated in my career, I have felt that I was doing significant work that made an impact.
I also felt like I was a key contributor in that work, not just a tiny cog in a huge machine.
Or, I felt like I was having a positive impact on people, because I was helping or supporting them in some way.
You’ve probably felt the same types of things during your career. Why not provide these things to the people who work for you?
Having An Inspiring Company Vision or Strategy Is Not Enough
Sometimes I speak with people who are working in companies with a strong vision and mission.
This might include working to improve the environment, eliminate poverty, achieve the next medical breakthrough or some other worthy cause.
You might think that people in these organisations are loving life and full of motivation and energy.
This isn’t always true. Having an inspiring vision and strategy is not enough.
It’s very easy for people to feel disconnected from the purpose of a company, even if the purpose is significant.
I find this happening when people are doing uninteresting work, putting up with a chaotic work environment, dealing with politics or being provided with little freedom in how they operate.
This disconnect also happens when a person’s work is distant from the true impact of the company. For example, a Nurse who is helping patients can easily see the impact of the work they do, while an Accountant may not have that degree of visibility.
The point is, we cannot rely on our company’s inspiring mission to instil a sense of purpose. We also need to cultivate it in different ways.
An inspiring mission or vision is one ingredient, but the work environment and the work itself are critical ingredients in helping people find their purpose.
Practical Ways to Help Your People Find a Sense of Purpose
Theory is nice, and I’ve mentioned some relevant models earlier in this post.
But – we need to turn this theory into some sort of action for it to be useful.
So here are some practical ways to help your people find a sense of purpose.
1. Get to Know Your People
The best starting point to help people find a sense of purpose in their work is to find out more about them.
Instead of playing the guessing game, it can be worth understanding more about what they like, dislike, value and are interested in as well as their potential career direction.
What surprised me earlier in my career was that even interests outside of work can make a difference in the workplace. People often bring a mixture of unique interests and talents and when we can harness these, we can see greater motivation and commitment.
Not everyone is going to feel a sense of purpose from the work itself. So if we broaden our perspective of what people can bring to the team, we may find that we can build that sense of purpose in alternative ways.
In one case, I knew a person who was trying to improve her public speaking skills who ended up creating a public speaking group within the company. While this wasn’t directly related to her role, it helped her to build a network and harness her enthusiasm in a way that benefited others in the organisation.
Learn More: Why You Should Prioritise That Career Conversation.
2. Let Your People Lead Something
Next, consider letting your people take the lead on something.
People can lead from wherever they are – they don’t need to have a formal title.
Improvement projects are one of the best methods I’ve found to provide people with the opportunity to lead, especially if your people have identified the areas for improvement themselves.
And if you look at your team, I’m sure you can find something that can be improved. It might be a process, documentation, the way a system works or the way you provide services to others.
Instead of taking the lead, let your people take ownership of implementing the improvement. They can plan it, work out who needs to be involved, collaborate with the required people and then execute or oversee the work.
Sure, you might need to help them with some of this, but you’ll play a supportive role, rather than the lead.
This can help people feel a sense of purpose because they are undertaking a pivotal role that contributes to the improvement of the team, rather than just working in it.
They have the autonomy to decide what to do, and they’re making an impact that will last longer than today. The improvements may remain long after the person has left the team.
3. Connect Your People With the Customers
As I alluded to earlier, it can be hard to find a sense of purpose if you’re disconnected from the work of the company.
Many teams play a supporting role within their organisations, rather than interacting with customers directly.
That’s why it’s important to connect your people with the work of the organisation by helping them to see the impact.
When I worked in Aged Care, I spent a lot of time running corporate projects where I didn’t really engage with the people or customers on the front line. Then, when I took on some projects that directly impacted the people delivering the front-of-house services, the whole situation became a lot more real and purposeful.
This might mean having your people directly hear from the customers that they serve (who might be internal) or taking them out and about to see the different parts of the business operating, and clarifying how your team fits in.
When people can more directly see the impact of their work, the better chance they have of feeling that sense of purpose.
4. Help Your People Play Their Part
Clarifying roles and responsibilities is important for a high-functioning team, and for cultivating a sense of purpose.
Nothing is quite as demotivating as knowing that someone else is doing your work, or that work needs to be redone because people weren’t clear on the part they were playing.
Ideally, you want to remove overlaps between roles, or specify what the overlaps are, and when they occur.
Even when people do play the same role, I find it can be beneficial for each individual to have something unique that they deliver as part of that role, based on the skills or interests they bring. This can help them to feel more valuable to the team and differentiate the part they play.
Nobody wants to feel like a pointless cog in a big machine. We want to make an impact.
I once worked in a management role where a junior employee assisted me on various tasks. On one occasion, I did some of those tasks myself because I had some time, it was convenient and I didn’t want to bother them and take their attention away from what they were doing.
I found out later that this was upsetting for the junior, because they valued the part of their job that involved helping me out, even if it was boring work. I’d unwittingly trampled their sense of purpose.
Learn More: Roles and Responsibilities Unclear? Do This,
5. Involve Your Team In Decision-Making
The more you can involve your people in the decisions that impact them, the more likely they are to feel like an important part of the team.
People don’t like to be told what to do – they’d rather be asked and have their say.
This can feel uncomfortable for leaders, because they may feel like they’re giving up control and providing too much power to their people.
However, the alternative is that people don’t feel like as if they have a voice, and feel less committed to you, the team, and their team mates.
The more you can help your people feel like a valuable contributor to the team, the more likely they are to put in greater effort to help it succeed.
6. Remove the Barriers to Connecting With a Sense of Purpose
Connecting with your sense of purpose at work is a somewhat aspirational goal, so we need to treat it with care.
In many ways, it’s optional.
You don’t need a sense of purpose to do your job. But you might do it better if you have one.
We want people to feel engaged in the work they do, so we need to remove the barriers to feeling that sense of purpose.
The obvious barriers that I see are:
- People feeling like they’re underpaid
- Chaotic, uncertain work environments where change is poorly executed
- Unachievable workloads with under-resourced teams; and
- Dysfunctional politics which impacts productivity and effectiveness.
Fewer people will connect with a sense of purpose if you can’t create an environment where you have the basics right.
It’s Up to You to Help People Find Their Sense of Purpose
You can’t take accountability for people finding their purpose.
However, you do have a part to play in helping them find it and creating an environment to sustain it.
The main barrier will be your own fears and insecurities, because part of the process is letting go, and helping your people step up.
And you never know, supporting your people to find their sense of purpose might just help you to find your own.
How do you help your people find their sense of purpose? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!