The search for meaning in the workplace

Your organisation's purpose is more than a description of what you do.

Research shows firms with a well-defined purpose outperform competitors by up to 38 per cent. However, the first step in finding that purpose is for leaders to listen, rather than lead.

By Candice Chung

At its best, work is more than an activity we do to pay the rent and put food on the table; it’s an expression of ourselves. In 2016, however, Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report found that, worldwide, only 13 per cent of employees in organisations were truly engaged. That means a startling 87 per cent weren’t, leading to problems of high staff turnover, lower productivity and a lack of innovation and ideas.

What’s the solution? 

A number of workplace experts believe the cure for disengagement lies in this single question: Does what we do fit our sense of purpose? 

“Purpose is born of a desire to make a contribution to something greater than [ourselves],” writes Nicholas Barnett, chief executive of Insync Surveys, former KPMG partner and co-author of Why Purpose Matters. “It is rooted in our quest to find something worthy to serve that is meaningful and fulfilling.”  

While financial rewards are a valid (and necessary) motivation to get our jobs done, the best leaders can tap into a secret ingredient that drives authentic engagement: our basic desire to feel we matter, and that what we do, no matter how complex or tedious, makes a difference.  

“[Having a sense of purpose] helps us find meaning in our daily endeavours,” says Barnett. 

In the same way, for companies to thrive, a greater sense of meaning is needed to excite customers, galvanise staff, and inform long-term decision-making to go beyond the bottom line. 

“For organisations, purpose is an expression of the contribution we collectively wish to make to our customers, staff members, shareholders, industry and community. It defines the reason for our organisation’s existence and gives us a profound sense of why we do what we do on a daily basis,” Barnett explains. 

Economics of purpose

Research data is clear on the financial benefits of being a purpose-driven organisation. A 2016 study by University of Queensland researchers, “What creates advantage in the ‘social era’?”, found that firms with a well-defined purpose outperformed their competitors by up to 38 per cent. 

“These positive outcomes arise through a combination of factors,” says Tim Kastelle, the study’s co-author and MBA program director for the UQ Business School. “The primary drivers of performance in the vast majority of organisations are people. Purpose leads to happier teams, higher employee retention rates and higher levels of individual performance. In combination, these factors drive an organisation’s performance outcomes.” 

What’s more, today’s best workers, particularly millennials, are five times more likely to want to work for a company with purpose, according to Barnett. “If you want top talent, or [to] energise and engage them, find something meaningful and worthy to serve; [something] that goes way beyond making money for your boss, yourself and the shareholders,” he says. 

What you do versus what you stand for

How does an organisation discover its purpose? One of the first questions Barnett asks an executive team is, “What would the world miss if your company didn’t exist?” 

In answering this question, leaders are encouraged to think beyond a description of what their organisation does, and focus instead on the community they serve, and how it is impacted by the company’s products or services. 

“One of the great outcomes from this is innovation. Finessing our purpose helps bring energy and vitality to the work at hand.” Peter Acheson, Peoplebank

“[Your purpose] will not explain that you build roads, manufacture widgets, bake bread or provide a service. Your organisation might do one or more of those things, but that doesn’t explain why it does those things. Also, your purpose won’t simply be to make as much money for your shareholders as possible,” Barnett explains. 

Leaders should not shy away from defining their purpose at an emotional level, either. “People connect at the emotional level. If you hear a purpose that makes your heart miss a beat, then you know you’re there,” Barnett says. 

The four stages of purpose discovery

To arrive at a purpose that goes beyond empty marketing speak, you need to ensure the process used to get there has been as inclusive as possible. 

“The best way to [approach purpose discovery] is what’s called co-creation. This means it’s not about a leader telling their team what the purpose is. Rather, it’s engaging with staff to create a vision of what you’re going to achieve,” says Dr Louise Metcalf, a senior organisational psychologist with a focus on leadership development and training.

In contrast, a top-down approach is often unsuccessful. This is because for a company’s vision to resonate, employees need to be able to recognise the fingerprint of their own values in the purpose statement’s DNA. 

The 2016 Gallup study, however, reveals a huge majority of people feel no connection between work and personal purpose. “Most of us feel disconnected from the workplace,” says Metcalf. “Often that’s a downfall of the leadership, rather than a problem of the employees.”  

Barnett says there are four stages to the process of discovering organisational purpose: commit, discover, engage and embed. It is only by properly executing each of these steps that employees’ yearnings for fulfilment and meaning can be injected into the company’s purpose.

Professional Development: Business execution - linking strategy to people and operations. Communicate a common understanding of the mission, values and vision that drives your strategy.

The commit stage is where the chief executive gets unanimous agreement from the executive team about starting the purpose-discovery process. If the leadership team has any concerns, this is the time to raise them, not later. 

“There needs to be a 100 per cent alignment before you start,” Barnett explains, “because if there are any cracks from the top, it’ll become a chasm by the time it gets to the bottom of an organisation,” he says. 

The discover stage is where the leadership team “listen and shut our mouths”, says Barnett. “You want to ask the right questions and hear from your staff what they think. Technology allows us to touch everybody and get their views these days – which is fantastic.” The key is to extract the emotional part of what drives people’s passion in the workplace. 

“Once you’ve discovered your purpose, engage with the people. Connect with your staff: tell stories and have forums,” says Barnett. “Lastly, embedding is where the hard work starts. That’s where sustained leadership is crucial. Don’t just have a party and a big launch and forget about it. Real transformation requires your purpose to be deeply embedded and infused. It’s a process of continued alignment and re-alignment.”

Learn to let go

Peter Acheson, chief executive of IT and digital recruitment firm Peoplebank, embarked on an 18-month purpose-discovery process and says the new company vision now informs almost every part of the firm’s day-to-day business. 

“The purpose we developed and which we are excited about is to make lives better by helping people achieve their goals,” says Acheson. “What we’re now finding, as a result of our purpose statement, is that somewhere early on in our candidate interview process, we ask them about their personal goals. 

“This means we’re having a much better conversation with our candidate, because they can see that we’re genuinely interested in what they’re trying to achieve.”

An authentic purpose, says Acheson, should be relevant to your job every single day. “It’s not just an abstract idea. Not a tagline or a marketing catchcry.”

What’s interesting is that for employees to find their purpose, leaders must release some control. 

“Purpose leads to happier teams, higher employee retention rates and higher levels of individual performance.” Tim Kastelle, UQ Business School

“What you’re trying to do is devolve authority down into the organisation and give staff more empowerment – more autonomy than they’ve ever had before,” says Acheson. 

This sense of empowerment, in turn, leads to a high-performance culture. 

“One of the great outcomes from this is innovation,” Acheson explains. “Finessing our purpose helps bring energy and vitality to the work at hand. In today’s world, where profit growth is difficult, innovation is something that’s highly valuable.” 

In the end, a purposeful company is one that invests in people’s desire to make a difference to the world. Whether this translates to employees making a meaningful contribution to their team, their workplace or society in general, it’s something that is worth pursuing. 

How to find your purpose

  1. Focus on what makes you energised. “If you’re someone who cares about people, and you’re in a role that’s all about numbers, take some time out to connect to your value, like doing something for your team,” says organisational psychologist Dr Louise Metcalf.
  2. Ask how you can best serve others. “The biggest question is to ask what impact you’d like to have on those around you: team members, customers, family and others. Once you understand this, then you can ask deeper questions about how to best achieve this impact,” advises Tim Kastelle, from UQ Business School.
  3. Let go of what doesn’t serve you. “Realise there will be moments where you say to yourself, ‘If I’m authentic about this purpose, I may need to make changes,’” says Peter Acheson of Peoplebank. An aspect of your role might need revising, or it could be time to consider a more radical leap.  
  4. Realise that purpose isn’t about creation, but excavation. “Your purpose is there. As sculptors say, the image was always there in the stone, you just have to chip away to find it,” says Nicholas Barnett, co-author of Why Purpose Matters.

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February 2018
February 2018

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