Purpose in the Workplace – Three Levels of Purpose

We talk a lot about cultivating a sense of purpose in the workplace, so it’s helpful to take a moment to clarify just what we mean by “purpose.” In practice, there are different levels of purpose: Personal purpose, organizational purpose, and task purpose. Each level is important, and effective organizations will pay attention to each level to enhance performance. Let’s take them in order.

Personal Purpose

Personal purpose is what inspires people to get up in the morning and do what they do. Personal purpose is determined largely by each individual’s values and cares. Everyone is driven by some internal purpose, even if it is unexamined and unrefined. As an employer, you don’t get to control anyone’s personal purpose (except your own). You can, however, ally with your employees in ways that help them fulfill their personal purpose while also serving the organization’s purpose.

The formation of personal purpose is complex and, well, personal. But that doesn’t mean it’s none of a company’s business. In fact, being in alignment with your employees’ sense of purpose enhances commitment and loyalty, which has everything to do with your business. However, the only way you can align with employees’ personal purpose is for them to examine their own individual purposes, and for the work atmosphere to welcome employees to explore their motivations. In the best case, an organization with strong, embodied values and mission can serve as a role model for employees as they evolve and shape their life’s values.

Organizational Purpose

Organizational purpose is embedded in an organization’s statement of mission and values. Organizational purpose is determined largely by the values and vision of founders and/or executives who have shaped the culture. There is copious literature dedicated to the who-what-when-why-how of formulating powerful declarations of mission, vision, and values. I will emphasize only two important questions here: 1) Who cares? And 2) Are you truly living your mission?

The employees of today’s workforce, with aging Baby Boomers and new-hire Generation Y-ers, are increasingly concerned with doing good in their work—ie, they want a sense of purpose in their work. Surveys of both generations show that the desire to have a positive impact on society ranks higher than payscale in choosing a job. (See Daniel Pink, Drive)  This fact, combined with the growing contingent of socially-concerned investors, means that now more than ever, an organization’s mission shouldn’t merely voice a self-centered objective to dominate an industry (who cares?). Companies are being called up to something greater in their purpose, to strike a noble chord in the hearts of employees and investors.

Finally, it’s not enough just to have a statement of purpose. Your organization, from the top to the bottom, must live it. Your organizational purpose is what you collectively stand upon. It informs your strategies. It is the compass that executives steer by. If everyone is not living the same agreed-upon organizational purpose, then executives start navigating by their own guiding stars, and inconsistent direction and loss of focus results.

Task Purpose

Task purpose is the immediate motivator behind day-to-day tasks, the answer to “why should I do what I’m about to do?” Employees do better work when they can see the connection between their actions and the impact on customers. Balanced Scorecard principles suggest that day-to-day tasks should be aligned with group objectives, which in turn should be informed by the company’s strategies. That’s a good start.

It would be naïve, however, to assume that task purpose is driven only by a desire to accomplish one’s objectives. Task purpose exists within the context of team rapport, status, recognition, fear of failure, and all the other wonderful factors that make humans human. Ultimately, task purpose is individual to the person performing the task. As an employer, you can’t control what motivates each employee. You can, however, pay attention to factors that create alignment of purpose between the individual, the organization, and tasks.

Align Purpose at All Levels

Once you can recognize purpose at all three levels, it’s easy to see how alignment of purposes can enhance or inhibit productivity. The ideal state is for all three levels of purpose to be aligned. In other words, you want the following statement to be true, no matter who says it, “I see the connection between the company’s purpose, our strategies, the way we work, and the specific work that I do. I commit to this company’s mission and vision, because doing so helps me fulfill my own purpose in life.”

Of course, for this alignment to work for you, it requires companies to welcome conversations of purpose in the workplace, to value personal purpose as a motivator, and to understand that each individual brings a unique purpose to the table. Companies that make the shift experience higher productivity, lower turn-over, and gain greater access to the full creativity that their employees have to offer.

Where Can I Start?

We offer services helping identify and align purpose at all levels in your organization. We also have developed this self quiz to start thinking about purpose in your workplace. When you submit your answers, you will be able to view all prior respondents’ answers.

READERS: How well does your organization do at communicating its mission and values? Do you feel like your workplace is connected to your own sense of personal purpose?

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