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Find your purpose at work to improve workplace culture

Finding your purpose

What’s your purpose?  Do you have a clear idea?  Do you live every day to fulfil that purpose? What does the question even mean?

You may have some ideas – if you’re a family man or woman, you might view your purpose as raising the best children you can, if you’re religious (I’m not) you might have a clear idea of what God’s work is for you. But what if you’re not? Or you think that fine, I’ll agree that one of my purposes is to bring up a happy healthy family, but surely that’s not my only purpose? (I’m a feminist, so yeah, that.)  So what about at work, what’s your purpose at work?

I believe that the work we do is intrinsic to our identity and self esteem. You meet someone new, fairly early on they ask, ‘What do you do?’  How you feel about your work is bound up in how you feel about yourself.  If you can give an answer with which you’re proud, or at least comfortable, you feel better about yourself.  If you don’t like what you do, you’ll show this in your reply to your new acquaintance.

I’ve worked in all types of organisations, and many years ago I worked in the civil service.  One job involved collecting unpaid taxes, including prosecuting evaders.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I think we should all pay our taxes, and if not, we should be responsible for the consequences of paying a penalty.  I just didn’t want the be the one chasing them, especially for a government whose policies I largely disagreed with.

That job didn’t end well for me – I had a major disagreement with my manager.  She wanted to maximise income – I’m sure you could argue that was a legitimate purpose for the job.  I thought we were persecuting motorists and the penalties were not in proportion to the offences, and my team thought the same.  The purpose of the job just wasn’t a good match for my personal values, and I eventually left the civil service to work in the charity sector.

This anecdote also demonstrates that what works to make one person proud can make another uncomfortable.  ‘I’m a civil servant’ – it’s fine to be proud of that.  ‘I’m a tax collector’ – also a worthy purpose, but I just didn’t feel comfortable saying so.

​What difference does it make?

From Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, via Daniel Pink’s Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us, to Kevin Murray’s People with purpose, authors and researchers are showing us how purpose makes a difference with our motivation and productivity at work.  According to Murray, your job as a leader is to give everyone in your team or organisation a greater sense of purpose. It delivers better performance and faster growth. Employees live longer, have fewer illnesses (less sickness absence) happier lives and feel fulfilled.[1]  

Murray also inadvertently demonstrates what can happen if you haven’t nailed this.  He gives the example of Monarch Airlines, and how they saved the business from the brink of collapse.  This was in 2014.  They also teetered on the brink again in 2016 and were saved.  Only to collapse the following year, September/October 2017.  His case study talks about how they reviewed their purpose, mission, values and goals, got feedback from employees, buy in from the managers.  The CEO seemed to be going about things in the right way, but the framework for success was, to my mind, still full of management speak and jargon.  The purpose – ‘to show we care’.[2]  Care about what? Their medium term vision was double passengers and double margin. There were six strategic goals, four about finances, one about customer satisfaction and one about employee satisfaction (the last one on the list). Hmm, so that’s what they mostly care about then, profit.  

Surely the purpose was to get people to fabulous holiday destinations? Have a wonderful journey? Or for the holiday division, to make sure people had fabulous holidays?  I accept that there were other factors in the collapse, economic and Brexit, but I still think they got it wrong with their culture change.

The non profit sector has a head start in this – we’re already thinking about more than profit. Tapping into this for your organisation will increase your team’s productivity and create more value for your stakeholders.

Knowing the point of what you’re doing, and getting the meaning of it. Being engaged in the mission, vision and values of your organisation.  And your team all get it too.  The non profit sector is full of people who joined because they believe in its purpose, but sometimes, in the pressure of being overwhelmed, stressed and overworked, this can get lost. 

If you would like to reconnect with your purpose, and help your team re engage too, I’d love to hear from you.  Let me know, what are the challenges you’re facing right now?  Leave your comment below.


[1] Murray, K 2017 People with purpose, Kogan Page, London p 43

[2] Ibid pp 170-6

About the Author Lindsay Milner

Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.

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