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Why a ‘big’​ purpose isn’t always better

Thought Leader: Rachel Botsman
August 30, 2022
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Do you ever wonder why you do the work you do?

For me, this question seems to rise a few days into a holiday — when the rest and retreat of being away helps the mental chatter of daily commitments ebb away. I start asking what matters most to me, including the work I’m doing.

As regular readers of this newsletter probably know, I’ve taken the last six weeks off to spend the holidays with my kids. I would not describe the experience as restorative or relaxing — life with two young children rarely is! However, the change of pace has allowed me to reflect on how I prioritize my time. I can now see the things that get in the way of what I really value. It’s made me think of “purpose” differently.

Some of you may feel in a similarly wistful and contemplative mindset as summer draws to a close, and the autumnal signs begin to emerge. It may be the time when leaves fall and the light recedes, but I’ve always found it to be a time of fresh starts. Perhaps, it’s the strong association with going back to school and that feeling of a crisp notebook with a blank page.

That’s why this week we’re rethinking the idea of work-life purpose. What does it mean to ask: “How do I find my purpose?”

The mass engagement slump

Only 21 percent of employees feel engaged at work. According to a recent global survey conducted by Gallup, most people would say they don’t find their work meaningful. It’s a deeply depressing and worrying statistic from a sheer productivity perspective. But I have a deeper question: Are we really living in a mass purpose slump? And how can we think differently about solving this problem?

“Start with Why” (or maybe not)

You’ve probably heard of the purpose guru Simon Sinek. In 2009, his lecture “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” became the third most-watched TED talk of all time, with almost 60 million views. Sinek’s talk ignited a corporate obsession “purpose.”  In the talk, Sinek unveiled his “Golden Circle” concept with “Why” at its heart. In essence, he proposed companies make decisions thinking in this order:

1.   Why do we do what we do?

2.   How do we do it?

3.   What do we do?

Not enough focus, Sinek insists, is spent on “why.” I agree about the importance of a clear purpose for developing a motivating and meaningful culture. But I’ve always found this idea of a collective organizational purpose tricky, because people also want to find individual meaning at work — and there’s an inherent tension there.

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When purpose statements become too big

The root meaning of the word purpose comes from porpos, “an aim or intention.” For companies, this often translates as a future or focused aim that will make them the biggest or the best in something. “To be the world’s most respected service brand,” (Amex), “to help humanity thrive,” (Asana), or infamously, “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company,” (Amazon). These are big, audacious WHYS. Perhaps, TOO big to fulfill and too big fix our global disengagement problem.

Have you ever heard a human being talk about their personal purpose using terms such as “customer centricity,” “cutting edge,” or even “innovative”?

Personal purposes tend to be tied to simpler things somewhat within our grasp — health, relationships, comfort, stability.

The time we give to our core values

When people say they’re searching for meaning in work, they’re fundamentally trying to figure out what is important to them and what they value. It’s what psychologists call our “inner core values” — it’s the voice I was talking about that can shout and protest loudly when it’s given the space to do so (like on holiday.)

And these values are tied to highly personal beliefs:

• A belief that family is of fundamental importance

• A belief in giving back and helping others

• A belief in financial security

• A belief in curiosity and life-long learning

Purpose is not just about a big WHY or future intent. It’s not about what we want to be doing more or less of. Purpose is the time we give to the core values that are important to us. 

That’s why, when we feel like work is pulling us away from those values — family, learning, generosity — it can feel like our jobs are draining or not meaningful. Disengagement can follow.

So how do we fix this problem?

In The Purpose Effect, Dan Pontefract maps out how engaged employees connect the dots between their different types of purpose — purpose in yourself, your workplace role, and your organization. Think of them as three-legged bar stool.

Pontefract writes: “If one of the legs is broken or uneven, either an employee ends up crashing to the ground or there is a perpetual wobble, prompting a feeling of uneasiness.”

The three-legged model of purpose — personal, role and organization — can help explain what’s driving systemic disengagement at work. For the majority of the workforce, the bar stool completely tipped over or broke during the pandemic. The result is a seismic shift in people rethinking what they value — and therefore, what they don’t want to be doing.

I’ve heard more and more friends talk about feeling trapped by work that is keeping them from living their purpose. Successful professionals have shared fantasies about starting their own bakery, gardening, or bed-and-breakfast. Interestingly, these are somewhat repetitive careers with a tangible outcome at the end of each day.

Perhaps this feeling of disengagement or lack of purpose is coming from scale. Like a massive house filled with too much stuff, people feel trapped inside enormous systems with too many moving parts.

Purpose is not about size. In fact, I think this is where organizations often go wrong. The aim or intention becomes too big. It sounds counterintuitive but I think companies should go tiny on their purpose. To move to a smaller intention where people can join the dots between their personal and professional purpose.

Michael Porter, the Harvard Business School professor, is infamously quoted as saying, “Strategy is choosing what not to do.” The way I think about purpose is similar. It’s about examining and prioritizing, editing, and removing, allowing your values to clearly emerge.

So, here’s to fresh starts and a smaller purpose.

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