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We’ve Only Told Half the Story of Purpose at Work

December 19th 2017

If I gave you a cheque with a LOT of zeros on it, would you go to work on Monday?

This is a question I’ve asked groups all around the world. It’s a question that makes HR and team leaders flinch. But it shouldn’t. In fact, it’s a deeply revealing question about the primacy of work in our lives.

You see, there are really only two possible answers; Yes or No.

If the answer is No, then people clearly go to work in order to achieve something else in their life that is important to them. Work then, is the funding strategy for what matters most.

If the answer is Yes, then people go to work because the work itself matters to them, and fulfils in their life something that is meaningful and important.

In both cases, it drives home a simple but illuminating truth.

Work matters for achieving our life’s purpose.

And if it matters, we should do whatever it takes to get really good at it.

In this way, the conversation of Purpose at work is made quite simple. People work either because they have to or because they want to.

Both of course need to be honoured by leaders and organisations, but one of these drives greater performance and greater levels of satisfaction for the people involved.

But before we get too far down that road, let’s just take a second to double click on these, lest we get distracted by poor definitions:

People who work because they have to : this is where work is purely for financial gain and a means to an end.

People who work because they want to : this describes the worker who gains intrinsic satisfaction from the work itself. Work in this case is a means for contribution and is attached to a higher sense of purpose.

Back to the point:

Research shows that people who fall into the camp of purpose and contribution, people who work because they want to, achieve significantly more than people who are just going through the motions. To get right to the research, these people are:

  • Twice as likely to be in a position of leadership.
  • 55% more likely than average to become a director or c-suite team member.
  • Significantly more likely to promote their business outside of work.
  • Higher performers.
  • More likely to stay.
  • More connected in constructive relationships with their teams.

But whenever I look at research like this, it makes me think that we’ve only been told half the story of Purpose at Work. You see, for the better part of a decade, pundits and consultants have rallied organisations to establish the brand’s purpose. And not without reason!

People want to buy from purposeful brands.
They want to work for purposeful brands.

Heck! Purposeful brands even out-perform the market!

But god forbid that we should over-oscillate to the purpose of the brand, and never take into account the purposes of our people.

It is wonderful that a brand has purpose, but when push comes to shove, I have found that its the personal purpose of the worker that gets them out of bed in the morning, even more than the purpose of the brand and that the purpose of the brand is amplified when it is aligned to the purposes of the individuals that work there.

So there couple of principles at play in this short article:

  1. Brands MUST have a visible purpose that drives them forward.
  2. The purposes of the individual should be understood and honoured by the brand.
  3. Alignment between your team’s individual purposes and the brands collective purpose is critical.

But before we get ahead of ourselves and think it is case closed for this article, we have to consider the fact that most people have no idea why they go to work.

Ooooh controversial!
But seriously, I mean it.

I’ve asked people in more than 25 countries around the world, what they see for themselves in 5 years’ time. It’s my way of asking “why do you go to work?”. And for teams of some of the highest performing organisations on earth, I am constantly surprised by the lack of lucidity in people’s answers.

Most people find it hard to answer.
And it’s not for humility or some weird cognitive bias from the journals of psychology.
No, it’s just good old fashioned lack of purpose.

And research supports it.
Worldwide studies show that as few as 20% of people in the workforce have a driving personal reason to go to work.

Most people are caught up in the hum drum of work because, well, what else do you do?
But it's not the ideal state.
Not even close.

I’ll illustrate with an analogy.

Imagine you walk into a car dealership, and the salesperson approaches you and says “it’ll be a half a million bucks”.
“What will be?”, you reply.
“The car. Take it or leave it, it’s my best offer”.
“But WHICH car?” you ask.
“Like I said, the price is half a million bucks, take it or leave it”, says the salesperson.

Now, unless you were a particular type of high-stakes gambler, you’d likely scratch your head, and walk out. Why? Because you don’t know the price to pay for something, unless you know what you're getting for the price you’re paying!

And that my friends, is the danger with people going to work, without having a purpose for it.
It’s tantamount to paying a price without knowing what you are going to get.
50, 60, 70 hours a week is a high price to pay without knowing what you are getting for it.

But when you DO have purpose in your heart for going to work, well, it is the fuel that drives achievement and the very thing that gets you through the hardest of days.

Purpose is the fuel of work.

Do all that you can to build an empowering and meaningful purpose for your organisation, but also do all that you can to identify, amplify and harness the unique purpose of the people that show up to your workplace each day.

For further information on Phill Nosworthy or to enquire about making a booking for your next conference or event please contact the friendly ODE team

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  • +61 2 9818 5199

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We’ve Only Told Half the Story of Purpose at Work
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