The Ongoing Journey of Discovering Your Purpose at Work

Why did you choose your profession?

We rarely take a step back and reflect upon this question. The answer, however, is an important one. It determines our fulfillment in our daily work and lives. It also acts as the North Star that helps us find our way back to ourselves during times of adversity.

Additionally, employees who feel like their work is a “calling” (which indicates a high sense of purpose at work) tend to be more satisfied than those who don’t, according to Yale School of Management researcher Amy Wrzesniewski.

You might know someone, for example, who felt called to go into nursing because they value compassion. That greater sense of purpose allows people to see the bigger picture, beyond just the task in front of them. Wrzesniewski interviewed hospital janitors who have mastered this mindset. They saw their job as more than the task of cleaning, but as playing a supportive role in patients’ healing.

How can you help your employees find this greater sense of purpose at work, especially during hardship?

5 Strategies to Discovering Purpose at Work

  1. Establish or revisit company values, communicate them to your workforce and then — most importantly — live by them. Make sure that your organization has a clear set of values that will help employees connect the work they do each day back to a greater sense of purpose. Maybe “service” and “integrity” are two of your company values. You might choose to give regularly to a charitable organization or help out during a time of need. As an example, Crocs announced a program to donate 10,000 pairs of shoes a day to healthcare workers caring for patients on the frontlines during COVID-19. They’re waterproof and easy to clean, which helps provide peace of mind during this challenging time.
  2. Deploy a values assessment. Each person has their own set of intrinsic motivators. These are the things we value most in the world, which makes them innately rewarding. For some, it may be family. For others, it may be creativity. When the work we do for a living aligns with our personal values, it makes us want to give each task everything we’ve got. All of your employees have personal values, but they may not be consciously aware of them. Consider deploying a companywide values assessment to help your employees glean insight into their personal values system.
  3. Hire a coach. There’s a big difference between knowing your purpose and living it. Coaches can help to bridge the gap. They can help you learn to make choices that reflect your values back to you. For example, let’s say that you value health, but you’re struggling to manage your own right now between balancing work and family life. Your coach might suggest that you start the day with an activity that reflects your value of health, like going for a morning run outside, meditating on your yoga mat for 10 minutes before the kids wake up, or starting a gratitude journal. That small change can help you start the day feeling fulfilled, which flows over to everything you do next. “Some really simple shifts can make a big difference in the growth, development, and performance of people,” said Dr. Toni Best, Chief Human Performance Officer. Coaching isn’t just for employees, either. It can also be helpful for executives, who may feel like they always have to have the “right” answer — even in uncharted territory. Executive coaching has become increasingly popular because it gives people at the top someone who they can confide in and who will hold them accountable for taking care of themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically, which is essential for running the business effectively.
  4. Focus on the purpose of the task, not the task itself. Let’s say that your company is a parts manufacturer. Maybe some of your employees only see the parts for what they are — inanimate objects. But what if that part is used to create something that can save a person’s life? You might consider bringing in a customer who can speak to the part’s end use — and all of the people it has helped. Or, you might bring in someone who was personally impacted by the end-use of the part and is willing to share their story. It can mean all the difference between seeing the part or seeing the purpose.
  5. Promote accountability, but offer support. Don’t overlook the biggest contributor to a person’s success — themselves. As a company, you might consider offering resources to help support people in finding and living their purpose, whether that’s a mentorship program or free trainings to help them further a skill set that aligns with their values. But it’s up to the individual themselves to seize the opportunity. Remind people that they play the most critical role of all in their workplace experience and sense of purpose at work, in addition to the company’s culture. David Ulrich, co-author of “The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win,” suggests that people continually ask themselves two questions, “What do I want?” and “How do I define success?” Reflecting on these questions empowers people to take ownership of their work and personal lives. Circumstances may arise that are out of their control, but a sense of purpose allows them to see even the most difficult of situations through a clearer lens.