How Do You Help Employees Identify the Purpose Behind their Work?

Understanding the ultimate reason you do your work is essential to workplace happiness. And workplace happiness, in turn, is essential to other beneficial things, such as productivity.

When it’s 6 p.m. and you’re still at the office, knowing you won’t be home until hours after you should be, it can be hard remembering “your purpose.” Yet remembering the ultimate reason that you do your work is essential to workplace happiness. And workplace happiness, in turn, is essential to other beneficial things, such as productivity.

Kate Thompson, on the Big Think Website, wrote a piece highlighting the benefits of workplace happiness derived from employees knowing the higher purpose of their jobs. “…Many leaders are waking up to the fact that solving the crisis in workplace happiness is not only the right thing to do, but one that leads to immense competitive advantages. Studies are now linking happiness to higher work satisfaction and retention, more productivity, sharper strategic decision-making, more ethical judgement calls, and even better physiological health,” Thompson writes.

What to Do When the Higher Purpose Isn’t Obvious?

In some cases, such as healthcare, the ultimate purpose of the work is obvious—you’re healing people and, in some cases, saving lives—but in many other kinds of work, the higher purpose is less obvious or is uninspiring—i.e., to help the company make more money, so its top executives can make their numbers and get huge bonuses.

In companies where the purpose is not as obvious, so that an employee—especially one who is not well compensated—wonders why they’re suffering, corporate social responsibility can help. An organization involved in many different charities can publicize this giving to its employees, so they understand that a percentage of the profit they help to generate will go toward worthy causes.

Bring Customers in to Share What You Do for Them

On a more immediate level, employees could be taught what their services will do for the customer, so that if the goal is financial—to help the customer make money—the Learning team could help paint a picture for employees of what that extra money will mean to customers. The employee would see that it isn’t just greed they are feeding, but that some of the customers need the additional money to retire, put children through college, or contribute to their own worthy causes.

Bringing customers in to directly share stories with employees about how their hard work helped them also could be powerful. For example, in healthcare, patients sometimes are brought in to share with doctors the difference that a healthcare product or service made to their lives. They also sometimes share their ongoing difficulties, so the doctors understand what these patients are dealing with, and why they need to continue working hard to help them.

It’s OK if the Higher Purpose Is Personal Rather than Communal

It isn’t enough to just tell employees about the ultimate purpose of their work. It’s easy to tune out what you’re told, but harder to forget when you come to the realization yourself. Once a year, the Learning team could convene a session with small groups of employees in which they each share what they think the higher purpose of their work is.

In some cases, the employee may tell you they think the “higher purpose” relates to themselves and their families, rather than their community or the world, and that’s OK. They are working hard to be able to give their children a better life or to support parents who need professional care. The higher purpose doesn’t have to be anything larger than an employee’s own concerns or passions. An employee might share that they are inspired to work hard because they want to earn enough money to be able to pursue a passion, such as creating writing, painting, or music, that wouldn’t on its own allow them to support themselves.

Be Sure Your Organization Models the “Higher Purpose”

As an organization works to help employees understand the ultimate purpose of their work, top executives and decision-makers must be careful that their own behavior does not undermine the messaging. For instance, I once learned of a healthcare company that got substantial funding from an industry that produced products injurious to patients. What did employees think when they heard this? Did it counteract the messaging of focusing on the ultimate good their work did for the community and world?

When helping employees find their higher purpose, organization leaders also must be sure they don’t lose sight of their own.

Does your organization proactively help employees identify the higher purpose of their work?