The recent pandemic has caused many people all over the world to reflect on their lives, their wellbeing, what their purpose in life is and what they want from their jobs. At the same time, employers have not only widely stepped up to provide much more support to their employees but they too have been widely reflecting on what is their own purpose and what they stand for.

It seems the notion of ‘purpose’ has hit the big time – with organisations nowadays widely issuing ‘purpose statements’ or claiming to be a ‘purpose-driven’ company. Leaders everywhere are now paying more attention to purpose and are increasingly putting it centre-stage in how they think about and run their organisations.

However, the idea of purpose is not new and, furthermore, what purpose means exactly and how it should be applied is not clear-cut.

For a start, the idea of organisational purpose has been around for several dcades (for example, back in 1938, in his classic book The Functions of the Executive, businessman Chester Barnard described defining ‘common purpose’ as a core task of leadership). And, over the years, the view has often changed as to what organisational purpose should focus on – ranging from shareholder profit or satisfying customers to serving a range of stakeholders and addressing core needs of society e.g. reducing climate change or boosting diversity (so-called ‘higher purpose’).

It is this latter view of purpose – serving wider needs of society – that is now combining with many employers’ recent efforts to respond to employees’ concern about their purpose in life. The aim is to project the image of a socially-concerned and virtuous organisation. But several big companies – like Unilever – seem to be rather more interested in using purpose as a handy marketing ploy by attaching ‘over-the-top’ purpose statements to their product brands: for example, Knorr stock cubes’ purpose is “to reinvent food for humanity”, whilst the purpose of Domestos is to “win the war against unsafe sanitation and poor hygiene”! Such ‘virtue signalling’ is obviously contrived and excessive.

Meanwhile, how employers should apply the idea of purpose in terms of leadership of employees merits more attention. In particular, bosses need to understand, firstly, more about what is ‘individual purpose’ and, secondly, ‘organisational purpose’. The challenge for leaders is to effectively relate one to the other.

What is individual purpose ?

Individual purpose is best thought of as the overarching sense of what matters in a person’s life. It is the significant, overall reason for living that provides meaning to a life. When asked most people admit they do have a sense of purpose, but it’s often difficult for them to identify or articulate. What people choose as their purpose is usually based a lot on what their personal values are, but other common influences include, notably, their interests, what strengths and skills they have, and what opportunities they see available to them.

Of course, we all have particular, distinct choices of purpose. But work by the consultants McKinsey developed a helpful categorisation of nine common purposes: achievement, environmental conservation, caring, freedom, respect, tradition, enjoyment, stability, and equality/fairness. An individual’s purpose may revolve quite closely to one of these nine types, or it may instead be more of a combination of them. Also, purpose can take a short or longer time to be clear, isn’t fixed or static once chosen, and can strengthen or change over time or quite quickly (typically in response to life-changing experiences like a serious accident or death of a close family member).

Individual purpose is linked cruically to the human condition of ‘happiness’: striving towards one’s individual purpose (i.e. ‘living purposively’) is the most enduring form of happiness (the Greeks called this eudaemonia). It contrasts with hedonistic-based happiness – what may be called pleasure – which involves just fleeting, emotional ‘highs’ from passing occasions or moments (e.g. winning a sports game or watching a great film on the sofa). In between purpose and pleasure is the form of happiness known as ‘flow’, which is felt when we’re so deeply engaged in an activity we love so much that we lose sense of time and what’s going on around us.

This concept of a hierarchy of happiness is similar to the well-known Maslow ‘hierarchy of needs’ model, which suggested that, once people’s basic physiological and survival needs are met, intrinsic motivators become more important (specifically, self-esteem and self-actualisation), but also – added later to the model by Maslow – ‘transcendence’, which is about supporting/promoting a wider community or helping others to self-actualise.

People who have a strong sense of purpose live healthier and longer lives than people who are not living purposively. Research studies have shown that they have at least a 15% lower risk of dying in the following ten years, they are 2.5 times more likely to be free of dementia, 22% less likely to exhibit risk factors for stroke, and 52% less likely to have experienced a stroke. Purposeful individuals also tend to be more resilient and are able better to recover from negative events.

Finding purpose at work

People choose individually how they define purpose and where they hope or expect to find it, but most (especially senior employees) will look – to a larger or lesser degree – to their work as a source of that purpose. They may find that sense of purpose from the intrinsic nature of the jobs they do and/or what their employer ‘stands for’ i.e. its declared corporate purpose. vision and values/beliefs. From an employer’s point of view, the ideal situation, of course, is that their employees find a degree of congruence i.e. overlap between their sense of purpose at work and that outside of work.

When employees do manage to find the purpose they want from work, this brings benefits to the employer as well as the employee. Evidence clearly shows that as well as employees showing more energy, satisfaction, health and resilience in their lives personally, there is a stronger employee experience which in turn leads to higher levels of pride, satisfaction, excitement, employee engagement, stronger commitemnt to the organisation, and increased feelings of wellbeing. Employees will also tend to be productive. In turn, unsurprisingly, more satisfied and productive employees will tend to lead to improved organisational performance overall.

Unfortunately, though, evidence also shows that most employees are not living their purpose at work as much as they would like – with the result that they and their employer are underperforming. Research by McKinsey (Individual Purpose Survey, August 2020) found that, whilst 62% of employees surveyed said they get some purpose from work, only 18% of respondents considered that they get as much purpose as they want! Particularly striking was the finding that, whilst 85% of senior executives felt able to live their purpose in their work, only a paltry 15% of front-line employees felt so: this is a very depressing figure – overall and in terms of the imbalance between senior and more junior employees.

This sad figure is in turn, a key explanation, of course, for the equally sad fact that only a minority (research indicates only about a third) of employees in organisations (across the world) feel positively engaged at work – that is, they not only feel a sense of purpose at work but feel motivated to give their best every day, bringing their energy, commitment and creativity to their jobs and helping their employers to be sucessful. Put another way, this means that around two thirds of employees are simply going through the motions at work, do as little as possible, and then go back home again! Very sad! And, of course, in turn this problem if employee disengagement is a key cause of disappointing national productivity levels in some countries – especially the UK.

So, what can employers do to make effective use of purpose?

Start with the organisation’s purpose

i) As a leader, since you can’t directly control employees’ own purpose, begin by looking at your organisation’s purpose. Check it indicates an inspiring, societally-based aspiration and vision for several years ahead but also that it is clear and credible in relation to the organisation’s abilities and current reputation.

ii) Ensure too that it is supplemented by a few other supportive ‘markers’ of strategic direction – particularly a set of core organisational values (guiding principles), a medium-term mission or vision statement, and a focal set of medium-term targets. A statement of organisational purpose is simply vacuous and useless if it is not backed-up by these accompanying statements!

iii) Ensure your organisational purpose is clearly reflected in and acts as a key driver in all your organisation’s policies, processes and day-to-day activities. The area of people management is particularly important – for example, job specifications, recruitment and selection, coaching/training, performance targeting and assessment, and staff remuneration/recogntion. Senior managers must be seen to be actively relating to organisational purpose to guide their decision-making and in their leaderhip style and everyday behaviours. If purpose remains just a poster on a wall, it will have no effect at all on employees!

iv) Managers should hold periodic, in-person meetings (workshops) with their teams to discuss and reflect on the impact their organisation is having on the world and to build employees’ understanding of and support for the organisation’s purpose. Try a mix of discussion methods, including larger group meetings and smaller sub-group discussion sessions. Managers should always ensure dialogue is open and authentic, otherwise staff will simply become cynical. The effect of such discussions should be to raise employees’ excitement and enthusiasion to be working at their organisation.

v) Complemeting these team in-person sessions, further promote the organisation’s purpose by keeping up an ongoing reference to it across all forms of company communications and media – including coverage of relevant latest projects and individual achievements. Updates and news bulletins from senior managers are particularly important to consider. Further reinforcement should come from a programme of open recognition and staff rewards to acknowledge notable work by individual staff members.

Help employees with their individual purpose

i) The key, first step for managers to help individual employees relate to their personal purpose at work is to sit down 1:1 with each individual and discuss and explore what that purpose is and also discuss how that purpose might connect with the organisation’s purpse. The meeting could perhaps become part of an individual’s annual (or semi-annual) performance review, but is best treated as a dedicated meeting on the first occasion the subject is discussed – in order to achieve a more relaxed, sharing and open discussion.

The meeting must, of course, be handled in a very empathetic, sincere and patient manner, not least because the subject is a very personal and prviate issue and, most likely, many individuals might not have thought much about such a topic before, or they might not be able easily to articulate their purpose, or they might simply be very relecutant about discussing it with their manager. Normally, though, if managers have previously been talking more broadly about the organsiation’s purpose, that will act as a useful context and stimulant to discussion. However, to further encourage discussion and build trust and a feeling of required ‘psychological safety’, managers should actually expect – and be prepared – to have to first open up and share about their own purpose and values.

ii) After these 1:1 meetings, managers hould seek to arrange some specific opportunities at work whereby each individual is able – hopefully – to relate more fully to an aspect of their own purpose. It may just be a case of pointing out to the individual how a current aspect of their job does in fact already connect with their individual purpose and the individual just needs to ‘see’ this connection better. Or the manager may be able to adapt or re-shape the job in question differently, or provide additional training, to enable a better connection with the employee’s individual purpose. Alternative actions might be to arrange some specific projects or assignments for the employee beyond his/her usual job, or – if really necessary – persuade the employee to change jobs.

iii) If it is not really possible to provide more connection to individual purpose in an individual’s day-to-day job, another (less preferable) approach is to consider providing support for individuals’ activities or interests outside of their work-time – for eample, in community or charitable activities. Examples of support could be paid time-off, direct financial support for a project, or providing office support or meeting space.

iv) Managers should maintain an ongoing cycle of regular, dedicated ‘check-in’ discussions with each of their staff to discuss and review how well indviduals are relating to their individual purpsoe and, at the same time, to the organisation’s purpose. The aim should be to offer appropriate coaching support and be ready to identify and agree any ways or opportunities to improve how individuals can find still stronger meaning in their jobs.

But purpose needs more for leaders to be inspiring

Although a crucial factor, purpose isn’t sufficient by itself for achieving ‘inspiring’ leadership. Research evidence (e.g. the UK Government’s Macleod Report of 2014/15) shows that, whilst it is important that leaders show concern for organisational purpose and values, that they help employees see where the organisation is headed and make employees feel like they contribute to the organisation’s purpose, leaders must also demonstrate several other types of behaviour if they want to be seen as inspiring and to boost employee engagement.

The most important attribute has typically been found to be the theme of making employees feel important, appreciated and cared for. This is achieved by, for example, making employees feel they contribute, valuing employees’ input, showing concern about how work affects others, and providing good feedback.

Other key attributes of inspiring leaders are usually seen as: being honest and sincere, demonstrating personal values/principles consistently (integrity), being a good listener, and defining goals for people. And still more attributes which are sometimes suggested are: leaders having great energy, they communicate effectively, they are trustworthy, they show passion, they are authentic, they show humility and empathy, and they have a sense of humour.

This is a helpful (albeit rather stretching!) list of indicative qualities and which also usefully puts purpose in the context of other needed factors for inspiring leadership. Of course, it is not possible to prescribe all qualities because every organisation and setting is different. What is interesting, though, is that in research studies on the subject, employees invariably judge their leaders’ performance on the various attributes at poorer levels than how leaders rate themselves!

I also think it’s important to appreciate that the list of attributes above does not obviously include, or equally emphasize, several other vital skills or functions in the overall competence of an effective leader – not least, for example, developing strategy and plans, structuring jobs which are motivating (e.g. a good level of autonomy and flexibility), monitoring the quality and output of employees’ work, manging budgets, spotting opportunities for innovation or change, managing risk, handling relations with other stakeholders …. et al! The point is that providing inspiration is not quite the be-all and end-all of being a leader/manager!

Not least, for instance, a leader may have other pressures or demands on his/her time than simply worrying about being inspiring – for example, the pressure to achieve operational output, respond to a rush customer order, hit a budget, or deal with a sudden interruption in supply chain performance. Or, on other occasions, a leader may have to make ‘tough’ decisions or implement ‘tough’ measures e.g. make staff cutbacks or re-organise operations when he/she can’t just focus on being inspiring! Also, there is the bare fact, surely, that some individual employees do really want to come to work, get through the day, and then go home: trying too much to inspire them by appealing to notions of purpose is simply not realistic or worthwhile!

Overall, then, my view is that the notion of purpose has a great deal to offer: a purposeful life and purposeful work can valuably and significantly come together and benefit individuals and employers alike. More employers should keenly embed and foster purpose as a key driving force to achieve inspiring leadership. The caution is just to realize that – like any leadership approach or method – it is not an automatic or adequate panacea by itself for achieving great leadership and comes with many types of challenge for leaders to apply effectively.