The importance of a meaningful and purposeful life at work

Apr 17, 2019
minute read

The importance of a meaningful and purposeful life at work

Mankind continually strives for ‘happiness’ which somehow remains elusive to most. Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

Some studies undertaken since then claim he got it wrong. One recent U.S. study found that people in developed countries have never been unhappier.  Harold S. Kushner, and many others concluded, “You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something”. Closely linked to meaningful activity is finding one’s purpose.  Purpose provides the impetus for getting out of bed in the mornings.  One’s purpose might be as important as rearing children, or as noble as saving the planet from environmental destruction. Beyond Blue defines a sense of purpose (or meaning) as “the motivation that drives you toward a satisfying future and helps you to get the most from the things you do and achieve – large and small – right now. It is shaped by things you believe in and value – your own personal code of behaviour.”

Professor Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement concluded that people find meaning in doing something for others, “the meaningful life is about finding a deeper sense of fulfilment by using your strengths in the service of something larger than yourself and nourishing others,” which serves to remove self-absorption and promote well-being. Professor Seligman defined the happiest life as the one with a true sense of meaning. He adds that the pursuit of pleasure on its own had no bearing on increasing happiness, but that the pursuit of meaning itself was the strongest factor in increasing life satisfaction.

As in life, the search for meaning and purpose is applicable in the workplace. If employees lack a sense of purpose, they are generally not engaged in their work, nor with the organisation. A leader needs to be clear about, believe in and be fully focused on their organisation’s purpose and then they need to work on connecting their employees with the same sense of purpose. A study by Robert E Quinn and Anjan V Thakor (HBR, July 2018) developed a process for helping leaders build a purpose-driven organisation.

1. Envision an inspired workforce

Look around at your people; find those who love their work; ask why they love it and then imagine imbuing those ‘whys’ into your whole workforce.

2. Discover the purpose

This does not mean creating a task force to intellectually decide why the business exists. Rather, discover business purpose through empathy, i.e. “feeling and understanding the deepest common needs of your workforce”. This involves asking questions, listening, reflecting and identifying the ‘golden nuggets’ that capture your employees’ hearts.

3. Recognise the need for authenticity and constantly reaffirm the message

If your purpose is authentic, people know because they can see that it drives every decision you make, good or bad. You direct your decisions with integrity. When employees realise their leader will not waver from the stated purpose by remaining stoic and determined with every decision, they, too begin to reorient.

4. Stimulate individual learning

Clarity of purpose will help employees link all learning opportunities to accompanying tasks.  A key difference in this type of learning is a reflection component. Employees are encouraged to regularly write (about 2 monthly) a description of their purpose (in their role within the organisation), their strengths and their development.

5. Turn midlevel managers into purpose-driven leaders and connect the people to the purpose

Deep connection with the organisation’s purpose and moral power, plus encouraging employees to share their stories of how they are making a difference, helps drive the process.

6. Unleash the positive energizers

Identify those in the organisation who are mature, purpose-driven and have an optimistic orientation.  They naturally inspire others; they’re open, honest, are willing to take initiative and openly challenge assumptions. These positive energisers go out, share ideas, and return with feedback and new ideas.

People who find meaning in their work give their energy and dedication freely, defying conventional economic assumptions about self-interest.  They grow rather than stagnate.  They do more, and they do it better.

If you need help in identifying your organisations ‘greater purpose’, chat to us, we're happy to help.

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