So, Is Work Everything You Dreamed It Would Be?


Look in the mirror. Suddenly you're in your 30s. Maybe it's your 40s.

You have been working a while.

As you pack up for the day, and head out to your car or the subway, you start reflecting about your job, your work, your organization, your life.

Is this it?

Does it get any better? Why am I so miserable at work? Is this really my life?

According to Gallup, the percentage of United States workers actively disengaged or not engaged stood at 66 percent in March of 2016. Gallup defines engagement as the point at which workers are "psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations." In fact, since 2000, the percent of United States workers who consider themselves engaged at work has not materially changed. It remains stuck in and around the 30 percent mark.

Employee engagement research surfaced by the marketing analytics company, Answers, cements the point with similar findings:

  • 27% of employees are engaged at work
  • 45% of employees are not engaged
  • 28% of employees are disengaged

Great news.

Both Gallup and Answers indicate you're in good company. There are a lot of people who feel the way you do.

One's role at work and the organization's ethos, culture and operating practices can have a significant bearing on your personal sense of purpose. But here's the secret:

Purpose always starts with the self. It starts with you, first.

In the quest for and creation of personal purpose and meaning at work, all of us must be constantly developing our skills, defining ourselves and deciding how we are going to show up in life, and at work. There is no such thing as status quo. There is no complacency. The emergence of meaning hinges on the recurrent pondering of three key questions:

  • What am I doing to evolve my self?
  • Who am I in life and at work?
  • How will I operate and be perceived by others?

Take for instance, Paul Bleier. He was working at a large consulting firm but something began to gnaw at him. Paul sensed he was treating his role merely as a job, simply collecting a paycheck, putting in the hours, performing transactional tasks, and not exactly thriving at work. In the consulting role, he learned what he could but he recognized that his personal sense of purpose was not being fulfilled. Paul self-discovered that his personal purpose included being innovative, sociable and enabling others to grow; attributes that were not being utilized or appreciated at his place of work.

He also learned that his company would not be supportive of those attributes and desires that fuelled his personal sense of purpose. Ultimately, there was a misalignment between his workplace role, his personal purpose and the organization's purpose. The firm that employed him was focused mostly on its profitability and billable hours count. This is not a bad thing, per se, however a higher organizational purpose was missing and it ran counter to Paul's personal purpose.

When he decided to leave the consulting firm, he eventually joined TELUS as an organizational development consultant, tasked with various aspects of employee engagement. In his role, Paul could be working with teams on collaborative leadership concepts, guiding individuals on career development, or partnering with leaders on various engagement strategies. When he arrived, not only was his sense of relief palpable, but his zeal, energy and creativity were abundant. He was not only productive, his spirit was infectious.

Paul was not just full of purpose in his role, he was glowing, and his stakeholders were happy. His purpose matched that of the organization's purpose, an organization that was galvanized around a customer-first ethos, an open leadership culture and a spirit of community giving. He was able to match his personal sense of purpose, values and attributes, with the organization's purpose and his consulting role. I know this because Paul reported directly into me when he arrived.

"I have found that the beautiful thing about personal purpose," Paul informed me one day, "is that it's fluid and can change over time to align with your career stage and aspirations." Paul believes that purpose misalignment is difficult for people to handle. He believes if individuals recognize the early warning signs and take initiative to do something about it, it can thwart any potential for personal or workplace blues.

"For me, finding a new organization that more closely aligned to my innovative interests while offering more autonomy to practice new ideas and forge deeper relationships was the key. I learned that when you move away from a victim mindset of 'why is this happening to me' and instead take the time to really understand what inspires and motivates you at work--both you and the organization will reap the rewards."

If you want to feel better in your role at work, like Paul, or the organization you currently work for, you must begin to put yourself first. Your sense of engagement at work will not improve unless you look in the mirror and ask the questions I outlined above.

Your personal purpose is a perpetual journey to develop, define and decide your what, who and how.

But unless you are independently wealthy, you must work for an organization (or start your own) in order to pay for groceries, that mortgage, the activities for the children or donations to charity.

You may not be in the best role or working in the finest organization. Sadly, this is expected given the mounds of data from various consulting and research firms.

Partially it's because far too many organizations have incredibly rigid and hierarchical cultures. It's stifling. It's at times unethical. (e.g. Volkswagen)

The issues in the organization run aplenty. But, organizations are made up of people, and often it's when people do not sort out their own personal purpose that the downward spiral of disengagement begins.

If you want to take a first step, you should develop, define and decide what your personal purpose ought to be.

An individual who seeks a personal sense of purpose in life will be one who is constantly developing, defining and deciding their values, priorities, attributes and general ways of conducting themselves in their activities.

It is a perpetual cycle of self-discovery. For personal purpose to be identified--to help identify your why--the questions of what, who and how must be continually asked by yourself. You may even want to engage your spouse or partner (or close friends) frequently.

Consider these questions for a conversation starter:

  • Develop. What are you doing to grow and establish your personal values, priorities and attributes?
  • Define. Who are you trying to become in life?
  • Decide. How will you operate when balancing the realities of life with the opportunity for growth?

Once you have sorted out your personal purpose, then it's time to think about whether the organization you work for has a purpose that matches your wishes, desires and goals.

If it does, great. Next, start asking yourself if the role you occupy is fulfilling that same question.

If the organization (and the role) does not match your defined sense of personal purpose, it's time to make harder decisions than whether it's chicken or beef for dinner, and who is driving Sally to gymnastic tonight. Perhaps it's time to think about a new role, in a new organization.

But first, start with you. Start with your own purpose.

It's never too late to put you first.


Dan Pontefract's next book, THE PURPOSE EFFECT: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization, will publish May 10, 2016. He is Chief Envisioner of TELUS Transformation Office.