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Re:Purpose at work

Jason Frank
Why and how we need to change our approach to creating a sense of purpose at work. At a time when everyone is heavily invested in ‘purpose at work’ do we need to re-examine what really gives people a feeling of purpose? Evidence suggests that by shifting our focus we can potentially have a much greater impact on levels of engagement, motivation and wellbeing amongst our people.


Moving beyond the ‘higher calling’ aspects of purpose


According to PwC’s ‘Putting Purpose to Work’ study: “A limited transient pool of top talent means a greater need to increase engagement and individualize employee connection to a higher calling.” The use of language like ‘higher calling’ is commonplace amongst culture and engagement experts, and usually goes hand-in-hand with big societal ambitions.


In their podcast ‘The search for purpose at work’, McKinsey experts shift the emphasis from an organisation defining purpose for its people, to empowering individuals to find their own “North Star”. But the concepts and language still seem remote for the average frontline manager or employee, who are too burnt-out to locate their “North Star” right now, according to recent research.


It seems that we may be over-indexing on the ‘higher calling’ / ‘societal good’ aspects of purpose. Something is missing from our purpose conversations, and the costs in terms of employee engagement, retention and productivity are potentially huge. The truth is that for millions of employees across many sectors the gap between corporate purpose statements and the day-to-day realities of working life is just too big. I have witnessed this damaging ‘Purpose Gap’ in several businesses, including a large professional services business where people struggled to relate to the global purpose statement, but seemed highly motivated by a much simpler corporate vision that focused on ambitious but tangible business goals.


Plotting a different path to purpose


How might we broaden our thinking to give employees a more authentic, meaningful and lasting sense of purpose in their work? Self-Determination Theory (SDT) [Deci & Ryan, 2012], a model used by behavioural scientists – including our very own – is a useful lens through which to look at the challenge. The model posits that fulfilment of the three innate human psychological needs below is necessary for optimal human functioning:

  • Autonomy – We need to feel we can make our own decisions and have the independence to do so.
  • Competency – We want to feel we have achieved a level of mastery and that we are capable enough to carry out tasks.
  • Relatedness – We want to feel a sense of belonging and attachment to others.


The power of intrinsic motivation


To really help employees get more from their work, and in turn give more, we need to tap into these intrinsic motivations, which form a huge part of feeling purposeful in any aspect of life. It’s no coincidence that these drivers align closely with the generally accepted drivers of employee engagement.


The recent critically acclaimed book ‘Lost Connections’ by Johann Hari, puts forward nine ‘disconnections’ that are contributing to growing levels of depression. Interestingly, the first of these is ‘disconnection from meaningful work’. Hari’s research highlights lack of recognition, monotony, lack of possibilities to grow, lack of autonomy, and lack of impact as causes of work feeling meaningless – no mention of wider societal good. Above all his evidence suggests that “disempowerment” is at the heart of work feeling meaningless, leading to poor emotional health.


It’s no surprise then that McKinsey research revealed that only 18% of frontline managers and employees believe they get the purpose they want from work, and 62% said that while they get some purpose from work, they want to get more. In stark comparison 85% of senior executives and upper management said that they do live their purpose in their day-to-day work. The McKinsey findings are echoed in a study conducted amongst UK civil servants, featured in Hari’s book, which revealed much higher levels of purpose amongst the senior ranks, and pointed to a general sense of “disempowerment” as the main cause of disparity with lower ranking employees. It’s worth noting that the McKinsey research revealed that less than one third of employees (31%) find their employer’s mission or purpose statements inspirational. Is that because they are bad purposes or because most purpose statements simply aren’t intrinsically motivating for many of us?


Findings from the 2019 ‘Meaning of Work Report’ add to the argument that we need to change how we go about helping people to feel a sense of purpose at work. The report from Indeed Hiring Lab is based on primary research amongst over 2,000 UK workers conducted by YouGov; labour market statistics from the Office of National Statistics; and insights from five years of activity on the Indeed job platform. The extract below particularly catches the eye.


Defining purpose is not a straightforward task – so we asked workers to tell us what purpose meant to them. Ranked most highly, at 59%, was “doing well at my job”, suggesting the intrinsic satisfaction of a job well done is important to many. With 69% of UK workers telling us they are motivated to perform to the best of their abilities, and 78% frequently going above and beyond in their current role, it would appear the UK workforce is driven to ensure they fulfil what they define as purposeful work. A notably smaller number defined purpose as working for an organisation that acts morally (25%) or for the greater good (28%), suggesting that for UK workers, purpose is much more about their own performance in the job than it is about an organisation’s CSR activities, moral stance or contribution to the greater good.

You may instinctively question the validity of the findings, running contrary as they do to influential thinking by the likes of Dan Pink, but several authoritative employee studies provide similar findings. These include the highly influential annual Universum global survey conducted amongst over 200,000 university students, where factors such as purpose, ethics and values do not feature in the top five ‘Ideal Employer Attributes’, outranked by factors like earnings, working environment, training, job security and innovation – depending on exactly which types of students you ask.


A different approach to creating more purpose at work


Having a purpose statement as a primary weapon in the battle to attract and engage employees makes perfect sense for most organisations – so long as it is backed by meaningful action. However, evidence suggests that many businesses would benefit from taking a more holistic and ‘grounded’ approach to helping their people feel more purpose at work.


This is true even in sectors like healthcare where there is a clear ‘higher calling’ to many aspects of the work people do. The problem is that across the sector most purpose statements are pretty much the same – describing positive impacts on the lives of patients. If healthcare employers are to create the desired engagement, differentiation and competitive edge from their purposes they need to make a concerted effort to make them genuinely relevant for people through role modelling, storytelling and recognition. Leaders need to do everything they can to make the purpose meaningful through their everyday actions and words.


In many organisations a more attainable and effective approach to helping employees feel more purpose at work could be built around the deep-seated human needs featured in Self-Determination Theory. Below are just a few suggestions on how we as leaders, communicators, and engagement specialists can help people to feel more purposeful at work by tapping into the power of intrinsic motivations such as autonomy and competency:


  • Give people a sense of empowerment by providing opportunities for them to participate in change, to have a voice, and to be involved in applying changes to their daily working lives.
  • Emphasize autonomy and competency in your ongoing communications about culture and major initiatives. Help your people to understand where and how they can exercise more autonomy, and demonstrate how new changes, investments and programmes provide them with new opportunities to be better at what they do.
  • Provide your people with real stories and relevant examples of what autonomy means specifically within the context of your organisation.
  • Provide the right kind of learning opportunities and role modelling.
  • Recognise and reward instances of employees exercising the right kind of autonomy to solve problems and delight customers.
  • Build a genuine learning culture that supports the development of new skills to enable people to build the competency, skills and confidence to be more autonomous


Purpose as it is typically referred to has a powerful role to play in many, though not all businesses. By reassessing how purpose really works, and by being clearer about what it actually means in our very different organisations, we have an exciting opportunity to create more powerful and lasting feelings of engagement, motivation, and wellbeing amongst our people.