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How to Connect Your People to Purpose and Why It’s Vital

Written by
Zach Mercurio
Zach Mercurio

If you’ve read the many workplace psychology studies and whitepapers published over the past decade, you probably know that a sense of purpose in work is important.

Studies show that when people believe that their work matters, they’re four times more likely to be engaged, are more motivated, learn faster, and are more fulfilled.

But do you know how to activate purpose and connect your people to it?

group-of-team-members-talkingIf you’re unsure, you have company.

A recent survey of over 502 leaders revealed that while 79% of leaders think that connecting their people to an inspiring purpose is critical to success, just 27% say they regularly enact purpose when working with their teams.

Closing the gap between the stimulating idea of purpose and its transformative practice to drive employee engagement, motivation, and fulfillment may be the most important task of modern organizational leaders.

Here’s why.

Why Purpose in Work Matters Now

The human yearning for purpose in work isn’t a new idea, it’s a universal human desire.

In 1974, oral historian Studs Terkel published his findings from in-depth interviews with over 130 people in diverse occupations. He found that for most, work is “about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

As Terkel’s findings emphasize, because we’ll spend an average of 35% of our waking lives at work, it’s a critical context through which meaning is made of life itself.

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It’s not a surprise that most people want that meaning to be positive.

Over the past 40 years, researchers confirm that people seem to have an inherent need and desire for meaningful work – work that is experienced as significant and purposeful.

Today, experiencing a sense of purpose in work seems more important than ever.

A 2018 study showed that 83% of people in diverse occupations say finding meaning in work is a daily top priority, and more than 50% of people across numerous occupations and industries indicate they would take a lower paying job for more meaning and a greater sense of purpose.

This August, 181 of the world’s most powerful CEOs pledged that business should no longer exist solely to make a profit but should serve a human-centered purpose first.

Today, if an organization doesn’t have a digital footprint, it’s irrelevant. It seems the same will be true in the coming decade for organizations that aren’t purpose-driven.

What Purpose Is and How Purpose Works to Drive Employee Fulfillment

Purpose generally means the reason for which something is done or created, the reason for its existence.

When applied to work, purpose is our usefulness and our contribution – the reason why what we’re doing exists in the world.

When people can clearly see how their work contributes to others and serves a greater reason for being, research shows they become better.

Why?

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First, when purpose is embedded into an organization’s culture, it constantly reorients people to focus on contribution.

This is powerful because neuroscientists find that human beings are hard-wired for altruism.

Studies show that when we think about our impact on others or directly help someone else, we get a boost of the “happiness trifecta” of neurotransmitters: oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin.

Oxytocin supports empathy and social bonding. Dopamine plays a major role in motivation and movement. Serotonin regulates mood.

The results are the desirable individual and organizational outcomes like increased engagement, motivation, and fulfillment.

Second, purpose lasts longer as a motivator than achievements or results. Results push people for the short-term, but a bigger other-centered purpose pulls them for the long-term.

This is partly why Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, found in her comprehensive study on resilience, that the pulling force of purpose is one of the key predictors of grit.

“Grit,” Duckworth said, “is stamina, but it's not just stamina in your effort. It's also stamina in your direction.”

Cultivating a motivated, fulfilled, engaged, and gritty workforce starts with purpose.

3 Ways to Connect Your People to Purpose

One of the most influential functions of a leader is the ability to infuse purpose into people’s work and enable positive meaning.

But it’s not enough to “have purpose.” Leaders must create a culture that promotes being purposeful.

Here are some research-backed ways to do it:

1. Regularly show people how their work benefits others

A couple of years ago, I worked with a team responsible for packing and distributing small components that are shipped to a manufacturer that assembles diagnostic medical devices.

After a tough financial quarter, this team was visibly demoralized.

Toward the end of a workshop I facilitated on purposeful work, a team leader raised her hand.

“I’ve been here for 12 years, but last month I learned for the first time why my job exists,” she said. “I was diagnosed with cancer and as I was laying in the MRI machine, I looked up at the logo imprinted on its side and thought to myself, ‘we distributed the widget in this machine.’”

“I realized my job had existed all this time to save my own life.”

If you want an antidote to employee disengagement, show people how they matter. Before my eyes, I saw her colleagues become more engaged.

Connecting people to purpose starts regularly showing people how their work matters. The results can be transformative. In fact, Wharton School professor Adam Grant and colleagues found in a landmark study that meeting just one person your job impacts can increase motivation and productivity by 400%.

Here are some key practices for showing people how their work benefits others:

  • During onboarding, make sure people connect early and often to a beneficiary of the work – direct stories work best
  • When delegating or assigning anything, before you tell people what to do and how to do it, show them why it matters through a story
  • When giving positive feedback and recognition, don’t tell someone they “did a good job,” specifically show them the difference they made
  • Invite employees to tell stories of their impact on others and incorporate these stories in regular team touchpoints
  • Encourage people to keep a weekly “contribution” journal that documents the ways they made a difference for team members or end users

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2. Help people tie their everyday tasks to a bigger purpose worth committing to

As John F. Kennedy was about to give a speech to launch the Apollo missions, he walked past a janitor and asked, “What do you do here?”

The janitor replied, “I’m putting a man on the moon,” and went back to mopping the floor.

This legendary and well-told story is inspiring, but how NASA’s leaders maintained a clear focus on this bigger purpose amongst a 300,000-person dispersed team is instructive for modern leaders.

In an archival study of organizational practices at NASA, researchers uncovered that each functional unit had a “ladder to the moon” – a tangible view of how each group’s tasks accomplished tangible objectives which would enable a moon landing.

Being able to clearly see how a task, no matter how small, contributes to a bigger purpose is called task identity and is a key predictor of meaningfulness.

Here are some key practices to connect people’s everyday tasks to the bigger purpose:

  • Ensure the organization has a clear, contribution-focused purpose statement to harmonize energy and that it is able to be articulated at all levels
  • Make sure each team has a “ladder to the purpose” and that every person and position can see how their core work tasks and processes meet measurable objectives that enable the purpose to be delivered
  • Make the pathway to purpose a daily discussion
  • Regularly assess whether employees can articulate the bigger contribution their core tasks enable
  • Provide the space for each individual to build their own purpose statement and provide a clear path for how it connects to delivering the organization’s purpose

3. Make contribution goals more important than achievement goals

What a culture rewards is typically what a culture becomes. Most organizations unintentionally reward for self-serving behaviors.

Cultivating a purposeful workforce means rethinking both the nature of the goals people set and what goals people are rewarded for achieving.

Psychologists find there are two types of goals: self-image goals and compassionate goals. Self-image goals are those used to get ahead. Compassionate goals are those used to contribute more.

Through studying groups of people over long periods of time, researchers find that those who set other-centered goals experience more motivation, learn more, and form more supportive relationships than those who don’t.

Studies also find that when teams use “we” instead of “I” they experience more meaningfulness and engagement.

Here are some key practices to make contribution goals more important than achievement goals:

  • Review the goals set for employees, are more of them achievement-oriented or contribution-oriented?
  • Set organizational goals that are measured by their relative impact on others, not on organizational gain
  • Encourage individual employees to set goals that result in a contribution to others
  • Create a rewards structure – yes even financial – that reward for purposeful behavior

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Purpose in Work Isn’t A Trend, It’s an Expectation

To summarize, the search for purpose isn’t a trend, it’s a uniting trait of our species. That search doesn’t stop when someone clocks in.

Organizations that enable the experience of purpose in work inspire their people to be more engaged, motivated, and fulfilled.

By regularly showing people how their work benefits others, helping people tie their everyday tasks to a bigger purpose worth committing to, and making contribution goals more important than achievement goals, you can help people experience positive meaning in work.

Psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that “Striving to find meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force of man.”

Purposeful organizations unleash this force.

Read the Guide to Modern Employee Recognition

Originally published on September 16, 2019 → Last updated September 25, 2019

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Zach Mercurio

Zach Mercurio, Ph.D., is an purposeful leadership and meaningful work researcher, adjunct professor, and the bestselling author of “The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose.”

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