What's the point?
The Search for Purpose at Work

Have you ever asked yourself the “what’s the point” question?

It is probably one of the most frequently asked questions humans have about work these days, especially on Monday mornings.

Humans need to have a sense of purpose for doing what they do. Engaging our brains for more than a few hours requires that our heart gets also involved. When the purpose is not sufficiently clear (or inspiring), people end up having a go at creating an alternative sense of purpose that they can believe in.

Finding the right answer would provide the master key for ultimately unlocking the gates of engagement and high performance in organisations, once and for all. However, most organisations have not found a proper answer to the “what’s the point” question, yet. Instead, they have been keeping rather busy, running after red herrings that often leave them empty hearted and back in the search for a sense of purpose.

The problem is not that we are asking this question. The problem is that we are not coming up with good enough answers for it. Senior executives and millennials alike are beginning to itch for meaningful answers; answers that can help justify the time and energy spent on endless meetings, worrying about survival and reputation, managing risks of all sorts and being lectured on what the next big thing is going to be like.

The more organisations search for a sense of purpose at work, the further away they seem to be from actually finding it.

Two different types of purpose

Consider the possibility that there might be two types of purpose at play. These are based on very different drivers and produce equally different outcomes around engagement, innovation, collaboration, quality and productivity.

I will call the first one, the getting purpose. This is the case where people exchange their time and talent for something they are interested in getting back. This popular approach can keep people motivated for a while, but will require a continuous adjustment of the terms of the exchange between employees and organisations for it to survive.

 

It does not take long to enter into this exchange, though. During the first few minutes of a job interview, a candidate will be presented with a shiny picture of their future. The focus of this initial conversation is mostly on their career, the possibilities for an ever-growing income stream, the reputation they will gain when talking about their job with their friends and families, their learning opportunities, the perks, the working environment, etc. An amazing deal is on the table. If you do a good job and work very hard, you will get a lot from us. And, by the way, this is what we do for our customers and remember that “they are at the centre of everything”.

As money, careers and corner offices became the main purpose of going to work, organisations had to create the corresponding structures, processes and policies to help people on their search for a sense of “purpose”.

Over the years, most people learnt to adapt. They became numbingly comfortable as they answer the “what’s the point” question using widely popular explanations. The deal is straightforward: the point of work is to get better rewards, more recognition, faster development and sufficient entertainment along the way, while enduring the side effects that this approach might cause. Similar to when we get totally immersed playing a board game, the “point” of it all is to keep playing the game, in the hope that we are the last ones to lose at it (aka winning).

This self-seeking sense of purpose comfortably matches that of most organisations where profit has become the main and only purpose, making “shareholder return” an unquestionable mantra.

The biggest problem with this approach is that it works, but not very well. Let me explain. It works, in the sense that it is widely accepted and it quickly becomes part of what we do at work. Organisations want to become great places to work, show high levels of employee engagement and offer a good range of perks that will attract, engage and retain the talent they need. This approach, however, leaves people and organisations feeling incomplete, struggling to drive sustainable performance and questioning the true value of what they do every day.

If we analyse the moments of truth where beliefs are formed, most of the interventions (recruiting, induction, deployment, performance management, career and talent management, etc.) make it clear that the point of work is to learn the tricks that will help you get as much from the organisation as you possibly can, while you are still there. This mind-set is reinforced by informal water-cooler conversations, where people share real-life stories that give a credible answer to point of going to work.

I recently visited the complaints department at a large retailer in London. The man in charge was in his 30s, well groomed and proud to explain that he was a “fast-tracker” in the organisation. He had been chosen to join the top talent team, a group of highly regarded professionals who are moved around the organisation to gain the best possible experiences, while being mentored by one of the board members. We talked about his recent awayday, where he got to meet one of the world’s best football managers who gave a “very motivational” talk. On his desk, there was a group picture that encouraged his recollection of the experience. On the wall, a few certificates from “amazing” workshops on customer services he participated in.

We began our interview assisted by a brand new coffee maker and a choice of freshly baked goodies and a bowl of perfectly looking unseasonal fruit. “Tell me about your job”, I asked. “I love it”, he replied with a smile. He went on for a few minutes describing how pleased he was with his job, the team and the company.

At one point, he stopped and looked at me rather seriously. “The problem is that some of the customers I have to deal with, just don’t get it. They insist that we do things that are not within our control, demanding immediate resolution when they know that things do take time. Sometimes, I can’t wait for the weekend”. It became clear that he did not like “that part of his job”, which was supposed to be the main reason for him being there! He finally admitted he was not feeling “fulfilled” and was already looking for another opportunity, in a different industry, where “customers are easier to deal with”.

This way of providing meaning at work is starting to show some serious cracks. Engagement indicators are not getting any better, and when they do, it is because they are actually measuring attachment (how much people need to stay, because of what they are getting), instead of measuring people’s appetite to add value. It is not uncommon to hear from senior executives about their plans “to give something back to society” as soon as they retire. Why is this?

It is also the pressure generated by the “what will I get” sense of purpose which has recently pushed ethical boundaries in very reputable global businesses, getting them into serious trouble.

Creating a better purpose

Teams that function well have a different sense of purpose. It is also the case that when a shared and inspiring sense of purpose is not readily available, people will make one up, individually. And the one they will make up is unlikely to engage them sustainably, in the right direction.

There is a way of creating a healthier sense of purpose, though. It is a non-toxic and a sustainable alternative to using the traditional “what’s in it for me” model. It requires converting the “what will I get” question into a “what can I give” one. In this case, organisations become ideal platforms where people use their time and talent to add value to others. The new language talks about the contribution that, as a member of a larger team, each person will make to society (aka customers) (Figure 1).

High-performing, motivated teams around the world share this type of purpose. They describe their jobs in terms of the value they are adding to their customers (not just to the shareholders), instead of focusing on what they are getting back from the companies they work for. They are aware of the impact that most of their actions and decisions have in making their customers’ lives a bit (or a lot) better.

Of course they also have great perks, but these are not seen as the purpose for coming to work. Having the right working environment, a fair pay and a supporting team are necessary elements to help them focus on adding value. But these, for high performing organisations, are not a purpose in themselves.

I spend a lot of time doing ethnographic research, informally sharing people’s day-to-day so I can better understand a culture before attempting to change it. Recently, I met a sales executive working at a call centre in one of the USA’s largest insurance companies. I asked her to tell me about her job, my usual question. Her answer was a clear proof that this organisation was beginning to get into the right track. “I help people sleep better at night”, she said. “You know, we live in a world of uncertainties. Nobody really knows what is around the corner. What I do, is to help small business owners not worry about their risks. I take their risks away from them, so they can focus on making their businesses grow. Of course, they pay for that, which is only fair. The more customers I can get to sleep at night, the better I do too. I love my job!”.

Finding purpose in this way makes an enormous difference, both for people and for organisations. It requires important realignments of all the moments of truth that exist in an organisation. It does take courage to let go of the “what will I get” model of purpose, but it is essential if we are serious about finding meaning at work.

From the distance, you would not be able to tell the difference between these two types of purpose. But get closer and you will distinguish between one that works sustainably and the other one that looks like it should, but it honestly does not.

So that is my point. You might not fully agree with it, but it is worth looking at the realities of our workplaces to think whether, despite of everything that is being provided, people are still looking for a sense of purpose.

The test is simple. Are your people struggling to collaborate, to innovate or to achieve targets they do not believe in? Or are they passionate about their jobs, continuously looking for new ways to increase the value they give to and through the organisation?

As a senior executive, what would you like it to be the point of your own job? You have a choice and this is a great time to exercise it, creating organisations that have a purpose that is worth working for.

(This article first appeared in Strategic HR Review, Vol. 15 Issue: 1, pp.25-28, https://doi.org/10.1108/SHR-12-2015-0094)