The biggest struggle organisation’s face around purpose is how to translate the grand intention into a sense of purpose in people’s everyday work.
Finding what you care about has the potential to bring unity and energy to your endeavour. But without connecting purpose with every person’s every day, it may as well be words on a cold stone monolith they look past on their way to do their work.
So what does connecting what you care about with what people do look like? Morten Hansen’s new book Great at Work has some handy examples from the front lines. But let’s start with his definition for a sense of purpose, which usefully delves beyond the usual platitudes of “why you get out of bed”:
“You have a sense of purpose when you make valuable contributions to others (individuals or organisations) or to society that you find personally meaningful and that don’t harm anyone.”
And in case the heading didn’t give it away, today I’m going to focus on the “personally meaningful” piece. Because that is where the purpose jumps off the page (or stone monolith) and bounds into thoughts and actions.
To learn why your purpose needs to be more than a headline click here.
Back to Great at Work:
“Two individuals can have the same job, with only one feeling that it is of any consequence … Take rental car clerks. Samantha, … she rents out cars and feels her job benefits society? Come on. Well, she sees it differently. Her job held purpose for her because she could help people who had gotten into car accidents and whole cars were in for repair. When they rent a car, ‘they’re not stranded’, she says, ‘they have a vehicle to drive. I feel good about providing that service’.”
In that one example, you can see the bridge Samantha has built. Has everyone she’s renting cars to had an accident? Of course not, but that aspect connects to her personal sense of purpose and helps her see her whole job as meaningful.
So, if it’s your organisation, how do you make that connection for dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people? You can’t. But you can give them the materials for their own bridge. A bridge that is even more important when the organisation is not involved in naturally inspiring work. As Hansen says, “just because you’re not saving kids in Africa or helping homeless people on the streets of Chicago doesn’t mean your job lacks purpose”.
Back to Great at Work:
“What matters, as far as purpose on the job is concerned, is how each individual feels about his or her own work. As long as people are contributing value in their job, it’s up to each individual to determine whether they see their work as purposeful.”
So how do you demonstrate to people they are contributing value?
You can begin with a simple question. For example, asking “how does my work contribute value?” can open up people’s thinking and allow them to start making connections. Then keep going. You might need to ask it more than once. There’s usually more than one step between what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and the purpose.
And it’s not enough to just ask the question. Even when someone feels their contribution is valuable they also need to see that value reflected in other places. In the way things are measured and rewarded. When they hear others talk about their connection.
So, how does your work contribute value?
See you next week.