Ten ways to find purpose in your work

I have written a number of times about how we as communicators and leaders should help people to find purpose in their work.   Purpose – or doing a job that means something – is dramatically climbing up the chart of what motivates people at work (much higher than money).    We need to take it seriously.   But what does ‘finding purpose’ really mean in practice and how can we be creative in helping people make sense of what they do at work?    Well, here are ten simple and practical ways to help you and your team find that reason to get out of bed each working day …

1. Play ‘whose purpose is it anyway’ – get your team to individually write down what they think your team’s purpose is.   Then come together to discuss and find the common ground.   Set some rules, like 10 words max and no jargon, and ask people to write what they really feel, not what they think the correct answer is.   The discussion itself will be enlightening and will bring your team together.

2. On a similar vein, ask everyone to answer the question “why am I doing this” or “how is what I do relevant”.   Or ask them to write down five words that describe what their job means to them.    Then go round and ask each other why.   Some will say ‘money’, others will write ‘fulfilment’ or ‘friendship’.    It’ll tell you a bit about why they do what they do.

3. Communicate to your team using words that lift their spirits and rouse their hearts.   Line managers, leaders and communicators take note.   Giving people meaning requires an emotional connection.   You need to reach inside them and make them feel something.    You can’t do that with PowerPoint.   To instil a sense of purpose in others you must show a sense of purpose in yourself.   Remember, Martin Luther King turned up in Washington on August 28th 1963 with a dream, not a Gantt chart. 

4. Talk openly about failures and things that don’t work out.   Sometimes we find meaning in loss, in chaos, in failure.   Sometimes we need things to go wrong to show us how to put them right.    Sometimes we need the humility to admit to making mistakes.   By talking openly about failure we can renew our sense of purpose, come together and resolve to put it right.

5. Offer praise regularly, and explain why.   Praise isn’t solely in the gift of the manager.   Let people know when you think they’ve done a good job or helped you do yours.   People get just as motivated by little pats on the back as they do for winning ‘employee of the month’.   Praise, with a reason why, adds meaning to work.  It lets people know that what they do matters.

6. Volunteer.  If you can do something together as a team in the community it can really add a new dimension to the way you work back in the office.   The feeling of coming together to achieve a common goal outside of work can have a powerful knock-on effect in terms of team dynamics, personal relationships and building a sense of purpose in the day job.

7. Be an organisational tourist.   Visit other areas of your organisation, or invite them to visit you, to better understand the part they play in the big picture and to put what you do into some context.   Context can provide meaning, and meaning will give you purpose.    Take steps to find out what happens to the work you do.     If you work in comms, go and find out how you are making a difference.  If you work in accounts, learn how your work helps keep the business running.

8. Pause and reflect.   Every now and again, take the team away from the office and take some time to stop, pause and reflect on what it is you do.   Stay high level, don’t get bogged down in detail or problems, and just take a step back.   Look at what you do, how you work, the service you provide, the reputation you have, the reason you all come to work.    Involve everyone and make an event of it.

9. Become a superhero.   Or whatever you want.   Everyone wants a job title that sounds cool to their friends, so play a game with your team to reinvent your titles.   Ask everyone to look at what it is they do (and why) and ask them to create a cool business card that sums up the role they play in the organisation.    Encourage them (and yourself) to go way over the top with descriptive adjectives and hyperbole.   Imagine your role stripped down to the basics and in a completely different fantasy world.   How would you describe it then?   It’s a great and fun way to look at the job you do.   If you work in accounts, maybe you’d feel better about having “numerical alchemist” or “bullion balancer” on your door?

10.  Be human.  Ever since we first looked up at the stars and contemplated our place in the grand scheme of things we human beings have searched for meaning.   Finding purpose in our work doesn’t have to be quite such a philosophical challenge, but it does require us to stay true to our basic human characteristics – asking questions, finding answers, seeking simplicity, collaborating with others, providing emotional support, connecting the dots, telling stories, offering praise, being creative.    Humanise the work environment and you’ll humanise the work.