Don’t get hung up on purpose

“We’re going to need a bigger boat” has become my mantra around purpose lately. Because, while purpose is imperative, it has limits and today is groaning under the weight of expectations.

Over lunch with friend and colleague Kate Messenger of Meme Partners in Sydney a few weeks ago, we spent some time delving into what that means for the ongoing rhetoric of the employee/purpose relationship.

I’ve written plenty about how an organisation can think about and use what it cares about, and the need for people to take ownership of it. However, there’s a fine line between people understanding and aligning with the purpose and an expectation that the purpose will provide defining meaning in their lives. It’s the difference between, “I understand and can stand behind that”, versus, “OMG this is who I am meant to be”.

I get it, people are looking for meaning and happiness, and given we spend a big chunk of our lives at work, it’s natural to seek them there. Unfortunately, organisations aren’t wired to be the saviour of people’s existential dilemmas. They are too complicated and have their self-interests that will always come first.

And that’s okay because there are plenty of other places in people’s lives where they can find their purpose and go to town with it. Anton Chekhov, widely recognised as one of the world’s greatest writers, practised medicine throughout his writing career and is quoted as saying: “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress”. He’s far from alone in the ranks of people who have found a relationship with work separate from their purpose.

So, why bother with the whole organisational purpose thing at all?

Because like Chekhov, it turns out, organisational purpose provides a handy doorway for people to find a sense of connection to what they are doing day-to-day, even if it is not their purpose with a capital P.

I’m often helping people uncover and understand the purpose. And for them to care about it, they first need to see it used deliberately and reflected consistently in decisions. More than what the purpose is, it turns out that using it has the biggest impact. Sorry, ‘it has to change the world’ people.

To learn more about why you shouldn’t try and change the world click here.

There’s a famous story in business circles of a guy interviewing the janitor who’s cleaning the rubbish off the docks at FedEx. When asked what he was doing he answered, (something like) “getting parcels delivered overnight”. I doubt this guy thought his life purpose was clearing away packaging. But he found meaning in the job because he understood in concrete terms how what he did connected to what the organisation cared about.

How many of your people could make that connection?

The message here for team members is don’t give up on purpose, but don’t expect what the company cares about to align to what you care about directly. Look instead at if you can get behind it and use it to build connection and ownership into the work you are doing. Then in the rest of your life, channel your inner Chekhov.

For people leading organisations, make sure whatever your purpose is, you actively use it in what you’re doing; help them see a clear path between it and what they do and they will come along — no bigger boat needed.

See you next week.

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