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Purpose at Work: It Comes From Within

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Over the last few years a lot has been written about making jobs "purposeful."

Reid Hoffman just posted an article about the importance of purpose, and described how LinkedIn creates purpose. Earlier this year the New York Times described how Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna, has applied purpose to their workforce. And my own research with Glassdoor shows clearly that "culture and values" are the most highly correlated factors in someone's likelihood of recommending their company as a great place to work.

Fig 1: Correlation of "company ratings" to various factors in Glassdoor, n=200,000, August 2015

But as much as I have been a huge fan of building a "purposeful culture" and communicating values and mission in the workplace, some new research by a research firm named Imperative actually shows us something different:

Purpose Comes from Within

I spoke with Aaron Hurst, the CEO of Imperative a few weeks ago, and he educated me about an existential truth. There are essentially two reasons people choose to work:

Reason 1: Work for financial gain or personal status. (not "purposeful")

Reason 2: Work to help others, contribute, or for personal fulfillment ("purposeful").

Their research shows that everyone in every profession falls into one of these categories. You can be a "purposeful" software engineer (do it for the love of it), or you can be an "unpurposeful" software engineer (do it for the money).

Imperative's research points out some pretty amazing statistics. Those of us who are "purposeful" at work are much higher performers. Specifically, these lucky folks are:
    • 55% more likely than average to rise to Director-level roles
    • 39% more likely to rise to VP or C-level positions
    • 50% more likely to be in the top position
    • Significantly more likely to be net promoters of their organizations, stay longer, have stronger relationships, report higher levels of fulfillment, and get higher performance scores.
And as Imperative's research shows, being "purpose oriented" is
not about the work, it's about YOU.

Fig 2: From Imperative Workforce Purpose Index study

What the Imperative research shows, which I found to be quite profound as I thought about it, is that we are all in control of how we perceive our work.

If we were brought up in a family where the breadwinner came home each night tired and unhappy and sat on the couch drinking beer and complaining, we are likely to see work as drudgery and just a way to get a paycheck. On the other hand, if your father or mother came home excited about work and talked openly about how much fun and excitement they were having (which my father did every day), then we look at work as a place to find self-fulfillment.

Think about this. You have the power to make your work more meaningful! (It may mean quitting and changing jobs of course, but remember - much of happiness is based on the stories we tell ourselves in our own head.)

Now here's the unfortunate news.

Only 28% of the US workforce is "Purpose-driven"

Imperative's research, sadly, found that only about 1/4 of us are in the lucky position to find work meaningful.

This, to me, is incredibly sad. And there are trends here:

  • Only 20% of tech workers are "purpose oriented"
  • Women and people over 55 are much more likely to be "purpose oriented." In fact the older you get, the more purpose-oriented you become.
  • Only 50% of CEO's are "purpose oriented." (Probably the ones who take time and energy to focus on their people.) And only 39% of VP's are. (They're striving to get ahead I'd imagine.)
  • Purpose oriented people have much deeper relationships at work (69% vs. 45%) - which tells us that "connecting with people at work" might be one of the keys here.
  • Artists are by far the most purpose-oriented (almost 2X higher than the average), followed by professionals. Laborers and hourly workers are the lowest, as you might imagine. But service workers are above average in purpose-orientation!
  • By industry, education, forestry, non-profit, and healthcare organizations tend to have more purpose-oriented workers - but as you can see, they're still mostly filled with non-purpose oriented people!

Fig 3: Purpose-Orientation by Industry, Imperative study

So What Does This All Mean

For me, after spending almost two decades studying work and talent practices, I take away a few profound findings:

1. If you're an employer, you should seek out people who "want to do the job you're hiring for" - people who love it for its own sake, people who love your company's mission, and people who genuinely like to help others. These people are relatively easy to spot, and while they may not be the most "ambitious" (many are), these are clues you can spot. (We have always had people like this apply to work at Bersin.)

2. If you're and HR manager or business leader, you should work hard to create jobs that can offer meaning to people. Give people autonomy and freedom to create and innovate; give them flexibility to work the way they want; thank them regularly for their efforts; and give them a clear mission and view of the organization's goals so they can find their own purpose at work.

(You can read more about how to build a "Simply Irresistible" workplace in my article explaining the new world of employee engagement here.)

3. If you're a recruiter or hiring manager, remember to ask people "why are you applying for this job?" This simple question will tell you about someone's purpose-orientation, and give you a clue as to how well they will adapt, grow, and contribute to your organization.

4. If you are a job seeker (and aren't we all?), take some time to rethink your own motivation. What do you really want to get out of work? How do you define your own measure of "success"? Can you think more about your impact on others and less about your personal gain? Are there tasks, jobs, organizations that really excite you that you can look for?

The bottom line message is pretty simple. We all spend 50-70% of our working hours in some kind of trade, job, or profession. If we don't really like it, it's up to us to change. We may need to change what we do, change the team we're on, or change the company we're in. Or we may need to change our own attitude.

Every individual at work deserves an opportunity to find purpose. I'd challenge you - for yourself and the others around you - to look for purpose in a serious and deliberate way. It will make you happier, healthier, and more successful in all areas of your life.

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