October 24, 2020
The Purpose of Life is a Life of Purpose.
By John Beckett

Reventure Ltd. is a not for profit organisation with 50 plus years experience working in Australian businesses, enterprises and not for profits. Today, our commercial subsidiary company Converge International – Resolutions RTK provides a range of services including Employee Assistance Programs, wellbeing and specialist HR consulting services. Today, our Mission is “To be the catalyst, collaborator and encourager for new thinking and renewal that transforms the way people and organisations view the purpose, value and meaning of work.” For further information and updates, please contact Dr Lindsay McMillan OAM, Managing Director. Mobile: 0409186322 Email: lindsaymcmillan@reventure.com.au


PURPOSE AND MEANING AT WORK

1. INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT

Purpose and meaning are playing an increasingly important role in the contemporary workforce. In particular, the younger generations entering the workforce are looking for ‘meaning makers’, people who can help them contextualise their work in the context of a bigger story and life purpose. At the same time writers and researchers across multiple disciplines are re-awakening to the place of not only purpose and meaning, but also emotions and spirituality in the workplace, and their importance for organisational effectiveness. Books such as Purpose: the starting point for great companiesand Start with whyhave resonated within popular business culture. We spend much of our life at work. Some work as a necessity. Some work to forge status and to shape their identity. Due to the centrality of the workplace in so many people’s lives, people are increasingly looking to work for a sense of purpose and meaning, both intrinsic (self actualisation) and extrinsic (for the good of others and for the sake of the world). This search is increasingly being seen as important by both employees and organisations. The growth in research and practise also suggests that the workplace is increasingly being regarded as an appropriate context for people to conduct this search for meaning, purpose and value in their lives.

Yet at the same time industry reports suggest that a minority of people actually feel engaged in their work and in some contexts engagement levels are steadily declining. Estimates have suggested that this lack of engagement could be costing countries hundreds of billions of dollars in lost productivity.3 In Australia, recent estimates show that disengagement among employees has increased to more than 82 per cent, potentially costing the Australian economy between US$37.5-47.2 billion annually in productivity losses.4 It would seem the increasing desire for engagement by employees and employers alike is not being met with effective strategies that foster engagement and enhance both well-being and productivity.

This paper seeks to analyse the current landscape and literature around the role of purpose and meaning in the workplace. While we propose a broad framework for leaders, highlight some existing tools, and propose some potential next steps, it is not designed as a comprehensive ‘how to’ guide. Rather, it is a foundation piece to assist employers and employees to gain a greater understanding of purpose and meaning, and to open up a conversation about the potential benefits of   a greater focus on purpose and meaning. The thesis is that a focus on purpose and meaning has potential to improve employee engagement, which in turn will enable improved wellbeing for the employee and increased productivity for the organisation.

The key questions the analysis seeks to address are:

  • What is the current thinking regarding purpose and meaning as it relates to the workplace?
  • What are the benefits for employers in understanding purpose and meaning?
  • What are the benefits for employees in understanding purpose and meaning?
  • What strategies can individuals, organisations and particularly human resource professionals develop to make work more meaningful and purposeful? What are the barriers to effective integration of purpose and meaning in the workplace?
2.    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

We begin our analysis with a definition of purpose and meaning before analysing how the two concepts are influencing the landscape in both the business and academic worlds. That is followed by an examination of the current perspectives on the benefits of purpose and meaning for employees, employers, the customer and society.

We argue that purpose holds great potential to provide a foundation upon which employee meaning and engagement can be enhanced. When an employee can clearly identify an organisation’s purpose, and the value that flows from that purpose to the customer and wider society, there is opportunity for the employee to discern what level of alignment they have personally with that purpose. This ultimately can lead to two outcomes; increased well-being for the employee and increased productivity for the organisation.

With regard to application, we examine the three major influences on the development of meaningfulness in the workplace; the social context, the individual employee, and the employer/leader. Each of these holds the potential to either enhance or detract from well-being and productivity.

We suggest a six step framework of principles for employers to help them create a culture where meaning is enhanced and both well-being and productivity are increased. The six steps are fostering employee participation, encouraging employee autonomy, effective communication and information sharing, articulating alignment between the purpose and the individual employee’s role, articulating the impact that the organisation has externally, and reinforcing engagement particularly through incentivisation. We conclude with some recommendations and proposed next steps for further work in this field.

3.    DEFINITIONS

PURPOSE

Steger and Dik define purpose as “people’s identification of, and intention to pursue, particular highly valued, overarching life goals”.5

Purpose can be conceived either as an end toward which one moves, or as a foundation from which one moves. Either way, purpose provides direction and properly conceived it is a primary determinant of meaning. Purpose becomes a gauge by which the value of other tasks is measured.

MEANING  & MEANINGFULNESS

Meaning is a difficult concept to define. It has many determinants and is used in a wide variety of contexts. For the purposes of this paper we view meaning simply as ‘a conception of significance’.

Meaning can be derived from multiple sources; understanding of self, understanding of others, and understanding of the world. In each of these cases meaning stems from an understanding of how something is intended to be. As such, it is closely related with an understanding of purpose.

With regard to meaning in the workplace, it is helpful to distinguish between meaning in work which has to do with a measure of meaning and meaning of work which has to do with understanding sources.

The recognition that conceptions of what is good for others and for the world are quite subjective has led some to focus on the concept  of meaningfulness, which is defined as a subjective belief that one’s work is significant. It focuses the measure of meaning on internal conceptions rather than externally imposed measures.6

4. MAPPING THE PURPOSE AND MEANING LANDSCAPE: A SHIFTING CONTEXT

The work context is constantly shifting. Within this context it is widely acknowledged that interest in the role of purpose and meaning is growing amongst both academics and practitioners, and that it is likely to continue to grow in the near future.

BUSINESS

Within business there are a number of movements that have conceptions of purpose and meaning as a key element of their formation. These include conscious capitalism, shared value and the for purpose movement.

There is particular interest in the place of purpose amongst a number of larger  corporations  following key discussions at Davos in 2014. One initiative that is gaining some momentum is the B team, which gathers organisations around a set of core commitments that focus on the idea of purposeful transformation. The movement has a number of high profile advocates, for example Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, who is leading the way in making purpose the core of their business.7

The rediscovery of purpose as a key tool for organisations is also being popularised within a growing consulting sector. Among the most widely known are Simon Sinek’s start with why, and Nikos Mourkogiannis’ Purpose: The starting point for great companies.8

In the not-for-profit context, many companies now have a preference for using the term for-purpose.9 We also see a rapidly-developing social enterprise sector as well as the development of a growing start up culture.10 The search for purpose and meaning is likely a key contributing  factor in each of these movements.

ACADEMIA

Within academia there is interest in purpose and meaning across multiple disciplines including psychology, management, leadership, human resources and marketing.

In the first major interdisciplinary collection on the role of purpose and meaning in the workplace Dik et al note that there has been increasing interest in personal purpose and meaning at work ever since 1990 when Kahn first linked an employee’s sense of meaningfulness with the notion of greater engagement.11 In recent years, this growth has been exponential. For example, the number of research publications on work as a calling has more than quadrupled in the last five years. There is similar growing interest in the fields of workplace spirituality, work and positive psychology12, and the link between leadership, purpose and well-being13.

REASONS FOR GROWING INTEREST

There seem to be a number of reasons for the growth in interest in purpose and meaning. The growing interest across the work landscape evidences both a growing desire for autonomy and self-determination in work, but also a shift away from a context where people relied on an organisation to provide them with job security.

Hartung et al rightly note that we are ‘navigating a new era of boundaryless and protean careers in which workers must direct themselves rather than be directed by organizations that are no longer stable… contemporary times demand self-reliance and self-directedness whereby workers must create security and stability within themselves and through their relationships to the social world.’14

Alongside this push for greater self-determination is a breakdown in traditional sources for discovering purpose and meaning, such as religion and institutions. As these traditional sources subside, people are increasingly searching for purpose and meaning in the context of the workplace where they spend the majority of their time.

5.    THE BENEFITS OF IDENTIFYING/INTEGRATING PURPOSE AND MEANING

 Before exploring the benefits of integrating purpose and meaning into the workplace on various stakeholders, it is important to first understand what are the goals we are seeking when we integrate purpose and meaning.

For employers and business leaders, purpose is primarily about unlocking performance in employees,  or highlighting value for customers, thereby maximising profits. By contrast, the major focus for psychologists and employees is creating a pathway to greater well- being. Discovering purpose and meaning, therefore, can be viewed as both a means to an end and an end in itself. While it may have a positive impact on an organisation’s financial position, it is an important end in its own right.

In the discussion below, we make the assumption that there is a flow from purpose as a foundation point toward two outcomes; increased well-being for the employee and increased productivity for the organisation. The intermediate steps in that process include creating meaning and fostering engagement.

BENEFITS OF PURPOSE AND MEANING FOR EMPLOYERS AND ORGANISATIONS

Mourkogiannis15 argues that purpose is the starting point for great companies. He suggests a number of reasons why purpose is essential to organisations: First, it is the primary determinant of achievement. If an organisation can effectively articulate purpose, it becomes the foundation for defining why it is they exist. This, in turn, provides clarity from which a company can measure success.

Second, it is the primary motivating force for community to form within an organisation and its employees. It helps to create clarity around which common purpose can form. This notion of community creates a culture where there is participation, trust, agency and alignment; where employees sense they have some sort of connection with the whole. In this kind of culture, meaning is much more easily fostered. Purpose gives each person a sense of both the direction the company is headed and his / her role in getting there.

Finally, it provides the platform for increased employee performance, and therefore increased productivity. Research supports the notion that employees who experience work as meaningful may enhance an organization’s financial bottom line, through lower absenteeism, higher resilience, greater engagement and less staff turnover.16

There is widespread agreement that in order to be effective, this focus on purpose needs to go beyond an exercise in brand positioning. Purpose needs to drive organisational culture if it is to have the capacity to create a culture of meaning for employees. Employee satisfaction will not last if there is a lack of congruence between a stated purpose and the internal realities of the workplace.

Human Resource (HR) departments who succeed in developing interventions or programs that align individual skills, job design and organisational systems around a common conception of purpose, increase the likelihood of enhanced productivity.17,18

BENEFITS OF PURPOSE AND MEANING FOR EMPLOYEES

In discussions within the contemporary marketplace it seems there is an implicit assumption that meaningful work increases motivation.

For example Daniel Pink, author and expert on the nature of work, claims that ‘meaning and purpose are core motivators, alongside autonomy and mastery. Money alone isn’t enough to push us to do our best. Instead, we are driven and inspired when we believe that what we  are doing serves something important beyond ourselves. We long for this meaning.’19 Pink also argues that higher levels of connection lead to greater resilience and capacity to cope with stress in tough times.

Similarly, in a recent Forbes article Lisa Mcleod stated ‘we know that the higher the level of connection (with your work), the greater your resilience—which means you’re far more able to weather the storm, to cope with stress and bear up under tough times. In fact, the more engaged and connected you and your team are to the work itself, the lower your stress levels will be. Not because the work is easier—not at all. But because your response to stress won’t be the same as someone who’s just in it for the paycheck……………………….. Purpose is the thing that will keep you afloat, no matter how the tides turn. And if you have it, you can get through just about anything.’20

The academic research in this area focuses on the notion of well–being. Well-being has an obvious emotional/ psychological dimension which we discuss below, but there are also interesting developments in relation to physical well-being. For example, a study by Hill & Turiano found that those who feel a greater sense of purpose than the average person reduce their risk of dying by 15% over 14 years.21

INTEGRATING BENEFIT – ENGAGEMENT AND ALIGNMENT

While there are benefits to both employers and employees, we argue that the ideal is to find strategies that create alignment between these two outcomes. In this section we seek to outline ways to develop connections between the purpose of work for both the individual and the organisation, and beyond that to the individual’s purpose in life.

From the employer’s perspective, this is about developing an engaged workforce who are energised by their work. From the employees perspective this is about finding synergies between work and the rest of life. A key concept that academics believe has the potential to integrate the perspectives of both employers and employees is ‘engagement.22 What is engagement? The most prominent definition in the Human Resource Development (HRD) literature comes from Rich et al. (2010) who proposed a three-dimensional model of engagement—cognitive–emotional–behavioural.23 Cognitive engagement is the most rational level of engagement. The individual employee makes a rational decision that the work is meaningful, safe and available and develops a cognitive sense of shared purpose with an organisation that takes them to the point of being willing to engage their resources with it.

Emotional engagement is the point of investment. The willingness of an employee to invest personal resources, such as knowledge, skills, and abilities because they share, identify with, and take on a common purpose with the organization. This emotional engagement drives the individual’s intention/decision to act.

Behavioural engagement is the physical act or investment. It is the only form of engagement that can  be externally witnessed, however there are key cognitive and emotional steps of engagement that precede it.24 Research suggests that employers can expect engaged employees to not only exhibit better performance outcomes, but also higher reported levels of job satisfaction and higher levels of organisational/role commitment. Engagement is connected to reducing stress while increasing motivation, engagement and resilience.25

While these are useful insights, they are primarily analytical. Alagaraja et al identify that while there is strong evidence in the research of a link between engagement and performance, there continues to be a limited understanding of the specific conditions that enable engagement to actually occur. The outcome  of this is that ‘most organizations desire higher levels of engagement; few, however, have any strategy for developing such an outcome.’

Alagaraja et al seek to contribute, at least in part, to overcoming this gap by exploring the interconnections between alignment and engagement.  ‘Alignment provides meaning, a sense of purpose and  understanding of the organization such that the  employee is able to interpret, search for, make meaning, and identify with the organization’s current and future course of actions. Thus, cognitively engaged employees understand and share a common purpose with their organization, and are therefore willing to make a personal investment. Emotionally engaged employees further identify their personal values and norms with those of the organization and are invested in productive, organizationally aligned behavior. Finally, behaviorally engaged employees align their efforts through incentive and reward structures to achieve the organization’s vision and mission.’26

The conclusion is that the onus is on both the individual employee and the organisation to seek alignment. From the perspective of the organisation, the development of processes, structures and relationships that are aligned will foster the conditions in which engagement can be enhanced. Adding purpose as a prior step to determining vision for an organisation may enhance this process of creating alignment. Where vision on its own causes us to seek alignment toward a common outcome or end, a purpose is much more foundational. It represents a starting point from which one works, therefore the concept of congruence or integrity may be more helpful. This concept is further developed below.

BENEFITS OF PURPOSE AND MEANING FOR SOCIETY AND THE WORLD

The development of purpose and meaning also hold potential for outcomes beyond the employee and employer. Purpose and meaning have the potential to enable both the employee and employer to create value beyond the organisation and the workplace, to contribute to society, to help make the world a better place.

In a cultural context where it seems as if ideological positions are becoming further polarised, there are renewed efforts to find expressions of business that  are both good for the world and good for the bottom line. This is happening at both the organisational level and the broader ideological level, where people are not just reassessing the purpose of businesses, but the fundamental role that business itself plays in the world.27

Both academics and practitioners acknowledge that a renewed interest in purpose might have the capacity to restore community trust in business and its role in the well-being of society. ‘A focus on purpose acknowledges the interdependence of business and society— one cannot flourish without the other. It engages exploration of how corporate purpose and the values that drive it might best be brought together in the service of society.’ There is hope that ‘an intentional and broadened focus on purpose—the reason for which business is created or exists, its meaning and direction— can help address these challenges.’28

This shift is clearly seen in movements such as shared value which seeks to create ‘new opportunities for companies, civil society organizations, and governments to leverage the power of market-based competition in addressing social problems.’29 Shared value and movements like it recognise that successful business in a failing society are self-defeating. We have moved beyond a model where businesses pursue profits then deploy some residual benefits of those profits to society as a means of corporate philanthropy. The new frontier seeks to align purpose with social good, employing creativity  to design businesses that derive profit by delivering products and services that benefit society.30

James highlights that the key to achieving benefits beyond the organisation is a focus on the customer.31 If the primary determinant of purpose is the value the organisation (and its products/services) create for the customer, then there is great potential for a culture of purpose and meaning to develop while also creating value for shareholders. By contrast, if the only value the organisation creates is a financial value for the shareholders, then leaders will find it extremely difficult to create a culture of purpose and meaning, and employee engagement is likely to be significantly lower.

BARRIERS FOR PURPOSE AND MEANING

A great deal of positive energy and a sense of optimism surrounds the purpose and meaning movement. However, there are some barriers that are emerging that may undermine the extent to which purpose and meaning could serve to enhance both employee well- being and organisational productivity.

While interest in this approach is growing, the culture of profit maximisation still dominates the corporate sector, particularly in western markets. The reality is that those who are seeking purpose and meaning, and who see the potential that creating real value for customers holds,  are still swamped by the numbers of companies who still put profits above all else. In such a dominant culture, different approaches will continue to be extremely  difficult and tensions and dissonances will arise. Leaders in particular will require creativity and integrity to stay the course when these tensions arise.

There is also now a level of pushback on the rediscovery of purpose and meaning because of the practical difficulties associated with it. In light of this pushback, there is a danger that it simply becomes recognised as the latest in a growing line of corporate fads, particularly if the potential is not translated into real outcomes for organisations and individuals. Again, here, a primary focus on a customer-driven purpose could hold a key to unlocking creative solutions that both maximise productivity and improve employee well-being.

An associated risk is that attempts by companies to invest deeper meaning into daily tasks could go too far. The reality is that not everything that one does in a workday will have deep significance or contribute in some way to the betterment of the world. And while efforts to find meaning can be fruitful, they also have potential to have the opposite effect, by highlighting the reality that employees do not currently experience high levels of meaning in their work and may need to change roles to find real meaning.32 In these situations, it seems a focus on purpose and meaning acts to intensify a problem for individual employees who lack the agency to change their situation.

6.    IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTISE

We have outlined the ways that identifying purpose and enhancing meaning in work can have positive benefits on employee wellbeing and productivity. In light of this, what are the implications for workplace practise? In this section we will explore what strategies already exist and what strategies can be formed for leaders, managers, human resource professionals and employees to help make work and workplaces more meaningful.

We begin with some preliminary remarks about the foundational role of purpose, and strategies for identifying it in both an organisational and individual context. Our assumption is that a proper identification and articulation of purpose lays a foundation for both employees and employers to enhance meaningfulness, alignment and engagement in work. We then explore three major influences on the development of meaningfulness in the workplace. These are:

  1. The social context – recognising that meaning and purpose are socially constructed. Both the workplace culture and the wider cultural setting are formed by the interaction of individuals to create that collective cultural identity. At the same time, these cultural forces are interpreted by individuals, and form the horizons of what is possible and impossible within a certain workplace.
  2. The individual – recognising that the work of discovering meaning in work, and aligning work with that meaning, require individual action. Workers should ideally be active crafters of their work experiences.
  3. The employer – recognising that individual employees are limited by their work culture and job design. If the workplace is poorly designed it will limit the expression of purpose and If it is well designed, it can enhance the expression of purpose and meaning thereby enhancing engagement, well-being and productivity.33

 

PURPOSE: THE STARTING POINT

Purpose is increasingly being put forward as a focus that helps both employers and employees to overcome the complexity and ambiguity of today’s world. There is a growing recognition that great leaders are able to discover purpose then create organisational alignment around it.

The seminal work in this area is Nikos Mourkogiannis’ Purpose: The starting point for great companies. Mourkogiannis argues that purpose cannot be a fad, it needs to be built on moral ideas that have lasted over time. A well-conceived purpose will advance both competitiveness and morality. It will help relate people to plans and processes. It will help connect leaders with their employees and customers. Purpose not only drives a company forward, it also sets it apart, giving it capacity for sustainable competitive advantage. As such, it forms a foundation from which all else in organisational life can flow.

 

IDENTIFYING AND ARTICULATING PURPOSE

If purpose is indeed a starting point from which meaningfulness, well-being, engagement, competitive advantage and organisational success flows, then the subsequent question becomes, how do we identify purpose and articulate it, in turn allowing us to align both strategy and operations around it?

There are many possible conceptions of purpose, however Mourkogiannis believes that there are four that hold the greatest potential for success because they are based on four moral ideas that have stood the test

of time:

  • Discovery – the search for the new, the innovative, the next frontier
  • Excellence – the desire to be the best you can be
  • Altruism – the desire to help others, to make the world a better place
  • Heroism – the ambition to achieve something extraordinary34

The process of determining purpose is one of discovery. This process of discovery is quite deliberate.

In an organisational context, purpose must be led from the top, but as we will see, it must also be participatory.  It must align and be congruent with what the company actually produces and its outcomes, yet it must also filter through to the way business is done, not simply what it produces.

Elangovan et al link purpose with the idea of calling and propose four antecedent conditions that enhance the individual’s likelihood of discovering it; motivation to find it, attentiveness, adaptability to try things in order to discover it, and self-understanding.35

Mourkogiannis argues that you discover purpose through a process of developing self-awareness, as well as the awareness of your leadership team and employees, cross mapped with strategic insights. Mourkogiannis suggests  a ten step framework for developing purpose which includes analysis of strategy, people, morals and context and also tools for developing processes and campaigns to embed it into organisational life.36

At the individual level a conception of life purpose can create a reference point by which one measures meaning and success. Jan Brown suggests a model of four simple questions to help individuals determine purpose:

  • How do you define success? What do you wish for yourself to achieve and to experience?
  • How does your family inspire you? What do they depend on you to do or be? How does your work help you meet the goals you have for your family?
  • What are your hopes for your community? Think big here–your state, your country, even humanity. Is there a problem in this community that you want to fix? Is there a way to start that work at your current job? Or have you outgrown where you are, and is this the time to find a place with the mission you want to call your own?
  • When do you most feel aligned with your core values? What work are you doing in this case? Who are you with? What work projects or outcomes resonate most strongly with those values? What’s one thing you can do to make these activities a greater part of your 37

THE SOCIAL CONTEXT

Meaning is not discovered in a vacuum. As much as individuals may like to believe that we have agency for self-determination, it is an inescapable reality that the prevailing cultures in which we live shape our understanding of what is important, acceptable and possible. That is to say that meaning is not only self- constructed; it is also socially constructed. Cultures attribute meaning to things. Not only do they attribute

meaning, the people, culture and symbols that surround us each day also provide the framework within which we discover and decide what is meaningful.

When considering the possibility of increasing meaningfulness at work, one must consider both the workplace culture and the broader culture. Both influence our understandings of meaning. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine the influence of wider culture on the discovery of meaning in work. This would be a fascinating but necessarily wide-ranging field of research. The role of workplace culture in either enhancing or limiting the capacity for employees to discover and develop meaningfulness in their work is discussed below.38

THE ROLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL/EMPLOYEE

Meaningfulness in the workplace is developed through both top-down and bottom-up strategies. That is to say, it is the responsibility of both leaders/employers and employees.

We have already noted that employees are searching in increasing numbers for workplaces that enable them to create alignment with a sense of purpose. Hall et al draw the distinction between what they refer to as a traditional career, where the organisation directs the employee’s career, and the protean career, where the individual manages her or his own path. Success in traditional careers was measured by external, objective criteria (such as position or income), but in the protean career, success is measured by more internal, subjective criteria (such as alignment with purpose).39

In this context, what strategies can individuals employ to discover and enhance meaningfulness in the workplace? Hall et al argue that for an individual to thrive in a  context where they are constantly required to redefine meaning in a rapidly changing context, they require two career metacompetencies: self-awareness, which is a clear sense of one’s personal identity, and adaptability, which is the capacity to change’. (60) They argue that employees who possess these two metacompetencies have the capacity to actively shape their tasks (what they do), relationships (who they work with), and cognitive frameworks (how they view/perceive their work) on the job.

Further, effectively fostering these two metacompetencies makes people more likely to  be able to find meaning in their work. This is because ‘finding meaningful work requires paying attention to both internal (personal) and external (environmental and contextual) factors.’40  Self-awareness helps an individual discern purpose and whether their work aligns with  this purpose, thereby providing meaning. Adaptability helps an individual to pay attention to external realities in the cultures in which they operate, and the skills and confidence to make the changes needed to pursue greater levels of meaning.

Beyond efforts to develop these metacompetencies, we have outlined two potential strategies that an individual could employ to develop and enhance meaning: career construction and job crafting.

CAREER CONSTRUCTION

The career construction approach ‘views calling as emerging from within workers themselves rather than from sources emanating from without.’41 The career construction interview is the key tool that flows out of the theory. Career counsellors use the tool to help individuals develop a narrative(s) that identify their purpose and sources of meaning.

The approach helps to firstly highlight individual distinctiveness (skills, gifts, values), which helps determine alignment or fit with particular work environments. Second, it highlights opportunities for individuals to manage the role of work in their lives so that it contributes to their personal development. Third   it highlights the possibility for design, whereby the individual can approach their future career as the author of a potential future.42

This approach, and particularly the concept of design, holds great potential for helping individuals determine calling and life meaning. The use of narrative recognises the reality that we all form and tell particular stories about our own lives. These stories shape our identity, and our identity is the foundation for purpose and meaning.

When we understand our identity we can seek out work that is congruent with that formed narrative/identity.

Where there is a disconnect between our work and our identity, we feel a lack of purpose and consequent lack   of meaning. This narrative approach opens the possibility for the individual to design her or his work experience in  a way that it becomes an expression of that life narrative. It opens the possibility that an individual’s offering of their experiences, skills, gifts and values through work can be aligned with who they are.

JOB CRAFTING

Berger et al define job crafting as the ‘employee-  initiated process that shapes one’s own experience of meaningfulness through proactive changes to the tasks, relationships, and perceptions associated with the job.’43 They highlight three frames for job crafting:

  • Tasks – the employee can act to change the tasks she/he works on, either through re-prioritising tasks that are more aligned with their sense of meaning, or through the addition of new
  • Relationships – the employee can craft greater meaning by reshaping who she/he works with. This may involve seeking out people whose skills are complementary, or finding mentors/networks who inspire.
  • Perceptions – the employee can simply reframe her/his perception of their role. This involves seeking out the potential connections that exist between your job tasks and your personal values or sense of purpose. It often involves taking a broader perspective, focusing on the beneficiaries of your work, as opposed to focusing on the nature of the tasks that you

One of the strengths of job crafting is its capacity to give employees a greater sense of agency to redefine and reimagine their roles. In doing so, it places some of the responsibility for enhancing meaningfulness with the individual.

THE ROLE OF THE LEADER/EMPLOYER

The third key factor in developing a workplace culture that enhances meaning is the role of leadership. In a sense, the other two factors can be viewed within the framework of leadership, because the leader plays a central role in both developing workplace culture and in providing the parameters within which employees can co-create meaning. In light of this, in this section we outline a proposed framework of principles that can help employers to develop a culture of meaning in the workplace.

A FRAMEWORK FOR LEADERS

 

The foundation for this framework is adapted from work done by Byrne, Palmer, et al.44 It outlines a series of six principles/steps that an employer can work through with an employee to seek to foster meaningfulness in the workplace. The foundational principle that undergirds it is a respect and value for the contribution that employees make to the workplace.

  1. Participation: Sincere respect and valuing of an employee will be evident in the extent to which she/ he is included in the identification and articulation of the organisation’s purpose, and in designing the strategies that move the organisation toward greater alignment with that purpose.

2. Autonomy/Agency: Where appropriate, workers should be afforded a high degree of autonomy in executing their duties. This is made possible by a clear identification and articulation of purpose. The leader encourages workers to be co-creators in achieving that purpose and develops the capacity of the employee to make decisions that are aligned with the purpose. This requires a degree of servant leadership, where the leader is humble and secure enough in their identity and role to value the contributions employees make.

3. Communicate: It is vitally important that the leader is able to articulate and communicate both the purpose and the functions of the organisation as they pertain to that purpose. This creates the optimal possibility for the organisation or team to gather around that common purpose with common direction. It is also the leader’s responsibility  to provide employees with the information and resources they require to effectively do their job, thereby maximising autonomy and agency.

4. Alignment: The leader needs to be able to identify and articulate the way in which an individual employee’s role contributes to the achievement of the common purpose. This includes fostering an understanding of how the individual’s personal attributes— their interests, abilities, values, and personality – uniquely equip them to  do  their work well.45

5. Articulating impact: While an altruistic outcome is not a requirement for developing meaningfulness, it certainly helps. Many workers are now looking for roles that serve external beneficiaries and contribute to the common good. Leaders who are able to identify, design and articulate strategies that focus on the customer or beneficiary, and therefore serve a greater purpose, are more likely to foster a work culture that is conducive to developing meaningfulness.

6.Fostering Engagement & Motivation: Intentionally developing processes to implement this framework may result in higher levels of engagement at work, which, as we have seen, likely results in greater meaningfulness as well. Leaders can reinforce this engagement through incentivisation that is not only linked to financial outcomes, but also to measures of agency and alignment.

TOOLS FOR LEADERS:

There are a number of tools that organisational psychologists and consultants use to help leaders be as effective as possible in developing effective work cultures. It is beyond the scope of this paper to list them. One tool stood out from the research as being distinct from standard approaches and worthy of further investigation. Berg at al, who developed the job-crafting exercise for employees outlined above, also propose an interesting approach to job descriptions that they refer to as job landscapes. Job landscapes are designed to help develop a culture of job-crafting. Rather than a list of KPIs and direct reports, a job landscape ‘outlines a list of end goals assigned to an employee…. and a set of interdependencies or ways in which these end goals overlap and relate to the end goals of other relevant employees.’

The key concept of the landscape is to identify how an individual’s end goals are related to others’ end goals. This enables an employee to see how their job aligns and interconnects with others in the organisation. While it is a relatively new concept, it seems to have the capacity to be an effective tool in helping organisations and/or teams to focus on common purpose and shared goals, while giving space for employees to use their agency in developing collective strategies to pursue those goals.4

It is also worth noting the vital role that training plays. In order for efforts to develop meaningfulness in work to be effective, there needs to be a level of intentionality. Training for employees could include formal opportunities, such as workshops and coaching that incorporate self-assessment exercises or training in job crafting. Training could also include more informal opportunities and particularly access to networks that encourage agency for employees to work with others to co-create outcomes.

For leaders, training might focus on developing the soft skills of transformational leadership, so they can better address employees’ needs and interests, engender trust and create commonality and alignment. If there is not a relationship of trust between leaders and their teams, then any attempt at fostering meaningfulness will likely be unsuccessful. Employees need both the permission to fail and the freedom to aspire to higher levels of achievement. Leaders need training that enables them to provide this sort of context.

7.    CONCLUSION AND NEXT STEPS

 It seems as though the time is right for both organisations and individuals to invest in more purpose- driven, meaningful workplaces. An opportunity exists for the creation of organisations that increase productivity and profitability while simultaneously investing in the well-being of their employees and the good of society. These recommendations sit alongside the six-step framework outlined above.

START WITH PURPOSE

Meaning, engagement and well-being are important elements in this discussion but purpose is the foundational point. Purpose is a starting point from which the six steps outlined in the framework above can be developed and flourish. Purpose is the organising principle. An identification and articulation of purpose allows alignment and community to develop. Clear communication of purpose creates boundaries within which employees can be given agency to co-create.47

SEEK CONGRUENCE

With purpose in place, the concept of congruence becomes meaningful. The power of purpose and meaning is actualised when leaders are able to integrate outcomes for the employee, the organisation and the wider society. A primary focus on the value created for the customer seemingly provides the greatest potential for this integration and mutuality of benefits to occur.

Leaders need to be able to draw and develop multiple lines of congruence, emanating out from purpose to vision, to individual job design, to KPIs, to processes, to training and development opportunities.Great leaders will also possess (or develop) creativity and imagination to see the ways in which the organisation’s purpose is good for the world.

THE NEED FOR SPECIFIC LEADERSHIP TRAINING

Discovering purpose and creating alignment around it is a complex task. For example, a serious commitment to fostering participation requires a leader who is willing to re-imagine the way that workplaces cultures are constructed, and who has the strength of character to persevere in the midst of the dominant paradigm.

The role of leaders is vital. They need to be able to see possibilities, engender trust, build a community of purpose then help employees make meaning within the work context.

There is a particular need for training that develops or awakens these soft skills in leaders. Models that prioritise mentoring/coaching through immersion experiences will be an important part of this training, as people need to see different possibilities before they can enact them.

THE NEED FOR CASE STUDIES AND EXAMPLES

Many organisations are awakening to the possibilities of developing a culture that enhances purpose and meaning. They desire higher levels of employee engagement, yet few have a developed strategy for developing that engagement. While there is growing research within academia, more stories and models are needed if cultures of purpose and meaning are going  to become more than a passing fad. A pressing need  is to develop and document a list of case studies of organisations who have attempted to implement these strategies, and to form them into programs and tools that will help enable others.

 


  1. Mourkogiannis, N. (2006) Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies (Palgrave Macmillan Trade)
  2. Sinek, S. (2009) Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action ( Portfolio)
  3. For example US$300 billion annually in USA, US$94.5-103.
  4. billion annually in UK, and over US$232 billion annually in Japan. Gallup (2009), “Social desirability bias and the validity of indirect questioning”, The Journal of Consumer Research,

Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 303-315. 2009 4 Gallup, 2009, Quoted  in Mohammed Yasin Ghadi, Mario Fernando, Peter Caputi,

(2013),”Transformational leadership and work engagement”, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 34 Iss 6 pp. 532 – 550 Permanent link to this document: http://dx.doi. org/10.1108/LODJ-10-2011-0110.

 

  1. Steger, F. and Dik, B.J. (2010) ‘Work as meaning’ in: P.A. Linley, S. Harrington and N. Page, eds. Oxford handbook of positive psychology and work, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p.133.
  2. Robert Lent, (2013) Promoting Meaning and Purpose at Work A Social-Cognitive Perspective in Bryan J. Dik, Zinta
  3. Byrne, and Michael F. Steger. (eds) Purpose and meaning in the workplace 1st ed., Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2013, (PsycBOOKS), p.153.
  4. See bteam.org. Coca-Cola has also joined with Unilever and others to launch Collectively.org. Collectively is a platform and hub that seeks to create synergy between industry, institutions and individuals to achieve collective impact and social change.
  5. See also It’s not what you sell, it’s what you stand for by Roy Spence of the Purpose Institute; Grow, a work founded in the concept of Purpose by Jim Stengel, The Purpose Economy by Aaron Hurst of com.
  6. For an example of this shift in the Australian context see Judd , Robinson A. and Errington F. (2012) Driven by Purpose: Charities that make the difference (Hammond Press)
  • For example see purpose.com
  • Kahn, A. (1990), ‘Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work’ Academy of Management Journal, 33, 692– 724, quoted in Dik et al, 2013.
  1. For example the publication of resources such as the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work (Linley, Harrington, & Page, 2010) and the Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (Cameron & Spreitzer, 2012).
  2. For example Ghadi et al, 2013; Nielsen, K., Yarker, , Randall,
  3. and Munir, F. (2009) “The effects of transformational leadership on followers’ perceived work characteristics and psychological well-being: a longitudinal study” in Work and Stress, Vol. 22

No. 1, pp. 16-32.

  1. Hartung, J., Taber, B. Career Construction: Heeding the Call of the Heart in Dik et al, 2013 p.19
  2. Mourkogiannis, 2006 (kindle version), location

16.Steger et al., 2010, pp. 131–142.; Steger, M. F., Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2012). Measuring meaningful work: The Work and Meaning Inventory (WAMI). Journal of Career Assessment, 20, pp.322–337.

  1. One study in the United States by KPMG showed that for employees with managers who talked up meaning, 68 percent indicated they rarely think about looking for a new job outside KPMG; that share fell to 38 percent for employees whose managers didn’t discuss ” referenced in http://www. dailysunnews.com/news/2015/mar/04/your-job-just-job/ – Lisa Mcleod.
  2. Meera Alagaraja and Brad Shuck, ‘Exploring Organizational Alignment-Employee Engagement Linkages and Impact

on Individual Performance: A Conceptual Model’, Human Resource Development Review 14(1).

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y
  2. http://www.forbes.com/sites/lisaearlemcleod/2013/08/23/ culture-of-purpose-why-most-leaders-get-it-wrong-and-3- ways-to-get-it-right/

 

Hill, P. & Turiano, N., (May 8, 2014) Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adult

  1. For example, Alagaraja et al propose that engagement is ‘good for both organizations and individuals because it generally promotes positive performance and the broadening of employee resources such as creativity and innovation’ 19
  2. Rich, B. L., Lepine, J. A., & Crawford, E. R. (2010). Job engagement: Antecedents and effects on job The Academy of Management Journal, 53, pp. 617-635.
  3. See also Shuck, B., & Wollard, K. (2010). Employee engagement and HRD: A seminal review of the Human Resource Development Review, 9, pp. 89-110.
  4. Nick Craig, Scott A Snook (2014) Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2014/05/from-purpose-to-impact
  5. Alagaraja et al 27.
  6. For example – http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable- business/meaning-purpose-values-social-business; Diener,
  7. and Seligman, E.P. (Jul., 2004), ‘Beyond Money: Toward an economy of well-being’; Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 1-31.
  8. Elaine Hollensbe, Charles Wookey, Loughlin Hickey, Gerard George, Cardinal Vincent Nichols (2014), Academy of Management Journal, 57, No. 5, pp. 1227–1234.
  9. sharedvalue.org 30.Hollensbe et al p. 1228
  10. James, K. (2015) On Purpose: Why Great Leaders Start with the PLOT (Wiley)
  11. http://prfirms.org/voice/2015/much-more-than-a-job- instilling-meaning-at-work-without-going-too-far); http://www. com/news/2015/mar/04/your-job-just-job/

33.Dik et al (2013) pp. 10-11.

34.Mourkogiannis, 2006, (kindle version) Ch. 2.

35.A.R. Elangovan, Craig C. Pinder, Murdith Mclean, (2010) Journal of Vocational Behaviour 76 pp. 428-440.

  1. Mourkogiannis, 2006 (kindle version)


https://www.mequilibrium.com/2014/03/11/find-purpose-

  1. Mirus, J., What is meaning and where does it come from?, https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otc. cfm?id=1278,
  2. Douglas Hall, Elana Feldman, and Najung Kim, Meaningful Work and the Protean Career in Dik et al, 2013, p. 60.

40.Hall et al, 2013, p.60. 41.Hartung et al p.18.

  1. Hartung et al, p.22.
  2. Justin M. Berg, Jane E. Dutton, and Amy Wrzesniewski, Job Crafting and Meaningful Work, in Dik et al, 2013, p.
  3. Byrne, Z. S., Palmer, E., Smith, C. L., & Weidert, J. M. (2011) The engaged employee face of organizations. In M.
  4. Sarlak (Ed.), The new faces of organizations in the 21st century (Vol. 1, pp. 93–135). Toronto, Canada: North American Institute of Science and Information Technology.
  5. Dik et al., 2009. 46.Berger et al, p.

47.See Mourkogiannis, 2006, (kindle version) locations 2783, 2803, 2823, for a set of questions to help determine purpose.

h

John Beckett

John’s passion is helping individuals and organisations to develop and articulate a clear sense of identity and purpose, and to find the places where their own stories fit with God’s story and God’s purposes. Too often people feel like living a life aligned with God’s purposes is too difficult to grasp, so John developed Seed as a vehicle to help give people the agency, support, resources, networks and confidence to create a new chapter to their stories. His hope and prayer is that Seed will help many to step into their God-given purpose, for the sake of the world and the glory of God.

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