When work is not ‘just a job’ – why having a sense of purpose is more important than profit (even if you’re a banker)
Most days we love our work here at EEK & SENSE. The days fly past, the challenges are plenty and there’s usually someone, somewhere who needs our help. It is said that ‘doing good does you good’, and on the very best of days, there’s a natural high.
Seeing others get more out of work and life from attending to their wellbeing reminds us why we do what we do at GLWS, and the reinforcement of our sense of purpose is uplifting.
Happily, it seems we’re not alone.
Having a strong sense of purpose and meaning is emerging from our research as one of the most important factors affecting executive wellbeing and performance.
From a sample size of over 2000 experienced leaders (average age 42) spanning 20 industry sectors and more than 50 organisations, we found a significantly – and perhaps surprisingly – positive picture.
Around 80% of leaders and senior professionals say they ‘usually or always’ feel:
- there is a real point to what they do at work (86%)
- their contribution at work is valuable and makes a difference (81%)
- they derive a sense of meaning and purpose from their work (79%)
Why is this so positive?
Where leaders feel their work is important, a strong sense of meaning and purpose is likely to play a strong moderating role in compensating for the stresses and strains that are characteristic of roles near or at the top of an organisation.
Meaningful work: An antidote to the imperfections, frustrations and sacrifices of life as a leader
We know that the load carried by leaders often takes its toll on their wellbeing and performance, so it’s good to see this important silver lining shining through. It seems that whilst typically burdened with excessive demands and insufficient resources, executives can find significant relief or even immunity from simply feeling useful.
Yay for some good news!
Leaders are the lucky ones, yes?
Far fewer leaders cite a lack meaning and purpose in their roles than do workers more generally. Life at the top may be tough, but for most it’s more interesting and purposeful than the daily working life the majority of employees experience.
A study published late last year in the Industrial Relations Journal of Economy and Society found that of employees across all levels of seniority in an organisation, 8% perceive their job as being ‘socially useless’, and an additional 17% are ‘doubtful about the usefulness of their job’.
In stark comparison, our research shows that of leaders in organisations, fewer than 4% say they ‘rarely or never’ feel their work has purpose or meaning, and only 2% say what they do is ‘rarely or never’ valuable or that there is not much point to what they do in their roles.
(Bear in mind there’s probably some sample bias here, i.e. by sheer dint of being employed in a senior role in an organisation that cares enough to invest in an intervention – such as deploying the GLWS for the benefit of leaders’ personal growth – it might suggest a more fortunate section of the management population, one where workplace conditions and systems are perhaps inherently more thoughtfully designed.)
So, while life at the top of organisations comes with well-publicised pressures and strains, at least it also seems to afford a greater sense of meaning and purpose than is the case for other, less senior employees.
That leaders and senior professionals report such high levels of meaning and purpose at work is an important insight – it flies in the face of how most workers in general tend to feel about their jobs, and it offers significant opportunities for those directly or indirectly involved in coaching, developing and engaging senior leaders. It’s also a pleasant counter to the view that we’ve all sold our souls to the corporate devil – clearly leaders and professionals in business settings are able to find or make meaning in their roles, despite not (in most cases at any rate) ‘saving lives’.
Purpose before profit: Why feeling useful is the top prize
Regardless of level of seniority within an organisation, no-one likes or sets out to land a role they consider to be socially useless. Here’s the thing – having a strong sense of purpose and meaning has been shown to have significantly more bearing on our job satisfaction that almost all other known factors.
Let’s say that again another way…feeling useful at work is of more importance to most of us than job security, opportunities for advancement, having freedom to work independently, and even how stressful we perceive our work to be.
Our observation is that the most progressive organisations are acting upon the growing business case for investment in wellbeing.
We are seeing some great wellbeing improvements happening in workplaces, such as:
- an increased focus on improving job design,
- paying more attention to a psychologically safe, inclusive, diverse and sustainable organisational culture,
- the creation of workplace environments that are conducive to optimal wellbeing.
The million dollar question
Wellbeing has become a legitimate outcome in its own right, and we now know for certain that it’s also a key driver of profit growth and stronger business outcomes across a variety of ‘hard’ metrics.
So instead of asking how you can make money from your work, the more sensible question becomes how can you, your organisation or your clients create more meaningful and rewarding work, for more of the organisation’s people?
Whilst most of the senior leaders in our research seem pleasingly contented in roles that hold meaning for them personally, the relative lack of meaning and purpose for their teams in the layers underneath them is something they should concern themselves with deeply.
The purpose-led approach
In today’s workplace context, the need and opportunity for leaders to unlock the deeper potential of their organisation and teams – to uphold a meaningful working ethos and bring our humanity to the forefront – has made purpose-led approaches dramatically more prominent in transformational change and growth.
Creating a stronger sense of meaning and purpose is a particularly difficult challenge, one that has vexed philosophers and existentialists for many centuries. ‘Meaning’ is highly subjective and whilst there are notional ideals that depict it, the reality is we can see and find it in many ways, some of them surprising.
Strategies and resources to boost purpose-led leadership practices
Boosting purposefulness and a sense of meaning at work has some tricks to it.
Much like beauty, meaning is in the eye of the beholder.
Here are some evidence-backed strategies and resources to help strengthen a sense of meaning, purpose and usefulness.
(Special note to our GLWS accredited community – log-in to the Meaning, Purpose and Direction domain on MyGLWS for some fabulous new updated resources which include and expand upon those provided below).
1. Coaching questions
For those who feel their meaning and purpose at work is low, try some of these coaching questions to help them explore and understand what’s amiss.
- What is missing? How does this role compare with other roles you have held previously? What insight do you have about why what you do doesn’t hold meaning for you?
- What difference does it make if you perform well or badly in your role? In what way might someone else see value or importance in what you do or bring to work? What would have to happen for your work to feel more important to you? What work/activity would hold more meaning for you and how motivated do you feel towards pursuing this?
- How does this discussion make you feel about your role? Is the issue that YOU don’t think your work is valuable or you think OTHERS don’t recognise your value?
2. Reflective practices
Whilst meditating on meaning, a recent blog post from the fine team at The Positive Psychology Program caught our attention. It’s a collection of other peoples’ thoughts about what meaning means. The full article can be found here but here’s one perspective that might resonate:
We’re looking for something, a feeling, a certain state of consciousness, a return. But what is often ignored is that one has to invest in order to get a return.
If meaning is the yield, the profit, the return, the question is in what we should invest to attain it. The answer lies in the only two currencies we have as humans, time and attention. We get to SPEND time and PAY attention.
The meaningful life is the return, the reward for investing your time and attention well.
If you’d prefer something more practical, here’s an inspiring TED Talk from Scott Dinsmore, who quit a job that was making him miserable to find work that was joyful and meaningful.
3. Strengths-based encouragement
Focussing on the positive, including the positives in our capabilities, skills and talents is a sure-fire way to help create an uplift in how much meaning work tasks and demands are perceived as holding.
The next time you find yourself having to do what you consider to be a piece of meaningless red tape admin or a banal chore, try bringing an awareness to your strengths and deploying those while carrying out the task in hand. We generally hate doing the accounting and admin “stuff” in our business – it doesn’t hold intrinsic meaning per se for us – but when we remind ourselves that it’s a means to an end, when we bring our commitment to making a difference to mind it helps us persevere. Or we might use humour to create some fun and light-heartedness along the way. There’s some very accessible ideas about character strengths and virtues available on the Positive Psychology Program website.
4. Job crafting
Sometimes, no matter how much reframing, positive thinking or reflective practice we engage in, there are just aspects of the way our organisations, teams and roles are structured that are plain wrong!
Psychologists see this as an opportunity to do some ‘job crafting’. This isn’t code for people jettisoning all the unpopular aspects of a role; it’s a way of tweaking the processes and systems in which they occur to lighten the psychological load.
For example, instead of an account manager receiving a folder with 40 client enquiries every Monday as a target for the week (associated with Sunday night stress and depression), the process was changed to receiving smaller files with only 8 enquiries each day. This simple change was experienced as less depressing and less overwhelming, a more interesting way of receiving work, with greater perceived variety and a more achievable set of goals. Genius!
It’s not possible to finish a blog on Meaning and Purpose without referring to the modern-day grand master of meaning – professor of both neurology and psychiatry and survivor of four Nazi death camps, –Viktor Frankl: “The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day, from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.
The meaning of life is to give life meaning.
Those who have a ‘why’ can bear with almost any ‘how’.
It is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements.
“Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response.
Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.
We don’t find meaning – we must be responsible for exercising our freedom and responsibility to make meaning in our lives (and in our work).
EEK & SENSE, GLWS Analysis of n = 2011 survey responses, December 2018
November Dur, R. and Lent, M. (2019), Socially Useless Jobs. Ind Relat, 58: 3-16. doi:10.1111/irel.12227
Leading with Purpose: How to lift people, performance and the planet, profitably. Division of Occupational Psychology Conference, CPD Workshop, British Psychological Society, January 2019
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946
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