Four Questions to Find Your Real Purpose at Work

Purpose is the latest buzzword for what supposedly drives the next generation of employees in the workplace. You have the purpose economy, purpose-driven companies, and even a consulting firm named after the holy grail of purpose.

But like the buzzwords that have come before it – innovation, change management, and productivity, just to name a few – purpose is a code word for something else. Purpose stands in for what the next generation is missing in the workplace, and therefore what we assume they hunger for.

This up-and-coming generation has come of age when business is the most powerful institution in the world, but cannot be counted on for the foresight and integrity to prevent the recent economic recession. Not only were there far fewer jobs for a number of years, but the jobs today aren’t typically expected to last and their benefits have been curtailed.

What this generation actually does at work, even in fields like medicine and teaching, more often involves hunching over computers spinning webs of data in an invisible cloud. Computers and robots are predicted to take over more of our work, while humans are doing less with our bodies and have fewer jobs to go around.

The world says the next generation can fix complex global problems while making money, but offers no easy answers for doing either or both. Cool technology companies can be mean to their employees. Nonprofits aren’t fixing global problems anytime soon. The banking industry is trying to reform its image. Social enterprises really do have a hard time being profitable.

Starting with the Boomers, the last three generations have been delaying marriage and children, which anchored previous generations earlier in life with a sense of responsibility, if not purpose. Our society is growing more secular and geographically far-flung, so religious and local communities provide less of that elusive sense of purpose.

So we assume the next generation will go all in for purpose in the workplace. Purpose is the catchall idea that explains why people would give more of themselves to their work, beyond the money they get paid. Purpose has become code for the intangible benefits of working at one place over another.

I have consulted with many purpose-driven organizations, and I have found when employees think their workplace is supposed to be purposeful, their expectations are even higher for their leaders to act in alignment with the company’s values. Employees can become even more disappointed and disengaged than they would be in a traditional company when leaders fall short of delivering on the promise of purpose.

While companies offer purpose as a job benefit, so many forces have untethered more of the workforce from traditional professions and long-term employment with one or two companies unleashing whole new opportunities for finding a personal sense of purpose in work. New fields and jobs are being created. Growing numbers of the workforce are becoming entrepreneurs and freelance workers.

If we take a closer look at purpose, beyond the brand promise of working for one company over another, it’s a highly personal and individually defined thing. Purpose is hard to come by, even for the few who have the luxury to consider seeking purpose in their work.

Purpose is really about finding the distinct blend of integrity, fit, freedom, and humanity each of us wants from our work in the context of the rest of our lives. We can define our personal sense of purpose by answering these four questions:

  1. How much money we need to make? How much time and which hours of the day and week are we available to work?
  2. What are our greatest strengths and areas of expertise that the market will pay us to bring to our work? Or how can we create new markets to get paid for our expertise?
  3. What are the conditions in our work and personal life that will make us successful?
  4. What are we willing to compromise? And what are we not willing to compromise?

If we have a boss, he or she should be asking us the same four questions and co-designing our jobs to consistently deliver on an individual, rather than a company-wide, definition of purpose.

And purpose isn’t everything. Have you ever found yourself in an utterly purposeless and unproductive moment? Maybe you were daydreaming or procrastinating or reading something for fun? Or have you ever watched young children with “free time,” who get that their sole purpose is to play?

Let’s not confuse purpose for the main reason we work or confuse work as the main purpose of our lives.

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