Helping Your People Find Meaning In Their Work

Purpose and meaning in work are increasingly important to generations entering the work force. Perhaps formerly considered private or personal, now employees are looking to employers to help them find purpose at work. How can leaders encourage and facilitate conversations with their teams about discovery, identification, and application of individual purpose at work?

What is ‘purpose’ and how is it different from a company mission or values?

Even a company with a compelling mission statement and values can and should help support its professionals in their individual purpose. An engaged professional’s individual purpose likely aligns well with his/her company mission and values but is not the replaced by the company mission and values. Tricia Wilson, Managing Partner, Talent & Leadership and Executive Committee Chair at DHG, describes individual purpose as, “What gets us out of bed, what drives our 'why' for living.” This is highly individualized for each person and might be very entwined with role and work or intentionally compartmentalized outside of work. Purpose could be role specific, changing over time or it could be lifelong, true of the individual person regardless of role. Employers who can help their employees reapply their individual purpose at work may find their workforce more productive, engaged, energized and loyal.

How Do I help My People Find Meaning in Their Work?

Here are three ways you as a leader can help your team members find their work more meaningful and engage their personal purpose at work:

How to Embrace and Encourage the ‘Purpose’ and ‘Meaning’ Conversation Among Your Team

Could a discussion about personal purpose and meaning get uncomfortable? Might a personal purpose conversation touch on religion or upbringing or other private topics? Maybe. Don’t force it to but do allow it to if needed. Part of the concept of bringing our whole, authentic selves to work it to make safe space to get to know what each other want to share with the team about themselves and create a sense of belonging that comes from being known. Don’t shy away from these vulnerable conversations but don’t force them. Recognize that each teammate associates a unique amount of his/her identity with their role and as a result, each individual purpose can range from “my purpose is outside of work” to “my work is my purpose” and any range of responses between. What one person finds deep, meaningful or compelling is completely different from another’s view – and that is okay. It is important not to over or under value one another’s purpose. It is personal, after all!

How to Share Your ‘Why’

You have likely spent some time thinking about why you do what you do (and if not, keep reading for some personal reflection ideas). Your team is probably more interested than you think in how you got where you are and why you do the work you do. Sharing your ‘why’ opens the door for your team to explore their own purpose and share their thinking on this important topic. Your opportunity to share might come up naturally or you can start a team conversation by simply saying, “I have read several articles lately about finding purpose and meaning at work and I thought I would share with you briefly my story and why I do what I do. It is my hope that my sharing might encourage additional conversations across our team about purpose at work. I would love to hear more about what your work means to you.”

Additional Reflection Resources for You or Your Team Exploring Purpose and Meaning at Work

Here are some key exercises to help identify your personal meaning and purpose in your work. They are presented as a menu of options from which to choose, an individual may find one or all beneficial but they are not necessarily in a specific order.

Exercise: Identify the “Why” Behind the “What” in Your Role – Name Your Impact

No matter how simple or complex your role, there is always a “why” behind the need for the tasks you complete day to day. Keep asking yourself about your work until you reach a reason that feels most meaningful for you.

Some important reflection questions include:
  • My role:
  • What are the tasks I complete?
  • Who does my work serve?
  • What value does my work bring those I serve? Why does it matter that I perform my work with excellence? Who does it impact if I do not?
  • What means the most to me about my work? Why do I consider my work important?
Here is a completed example:
  • My role: Automobile Mechanic
  • What are the tasks I complete? I change oil and check various levels to ensure optimal vehicle maintenance. I identify and assess mechanical problems a vehicle may exhibit. I make recommendations to vehicle owner regarding current/upcoming maintenance or repairs needed.
  • Who does my work serve? Drivers in the greater Charlotte area and owners and operators of my company
  • What value does my work bring those I serve? Why does it matter that I perform my work with excellence? Who does it impact if I do not? My work reduces the number of maintenance related vehicle accidents.
  • What means the most to me about my work? Why do I consider my work important? I contribute to transportation safety in my community.

Exercise: The DHG ‘Energy for Life’ Ultimate Mission Questionnaire (inspired by Johnson & Johnson Corporate Athlete)

  • Describe your best self
  • Who / what matters most to you?
  • How would you define success in your life?
  • What impact do you want to have on others?
  • How would you want people to describe you?
  • What makes your life really worth living?

Exercise: Is my work my purpose…or fundraising for my purpose?

If you find your individual purpose is not clearly aligned with your current work, should you find alternate work? Not automatically! Only you can answer this for yourself. In his book Love Does, Bob Goff says, “Thinking about work as a day job has made a big difference in the way I approach what I do. It’s also helped me not to confuse who I am with what I do…I started a nonprofit a number of years ago and now…I think about my day job as a great way to fund the things we’re doing.” Page 330

Make a spreadsheet of the tasks that are most crucial to your role – these might be the things you do most frequently or the items that may have appeared in your job description when you were hired. Next, use the ten cells to the right of each task to create a visual representation for whether completing this task supports or progresses your individual purpose or takes away from your individual purpose. 5 red boxes would be a task that you find opposes your purpose while 5 green boxes represents a task that is highly align with and supportive of your purpose. See the example below:

Degree to Which This Task...
Opposes My Purpose Supports my Purpose
Task 1
Task 2
Task 3

Additional Reading and Resources:
  • Harvard Business Review: “You and Your Teams” Series “Making Work More Meaningful”
  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, William J. Winslade
  • Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team by Simon Sinek and David Mead
  • Rethinking Success: Eight Essential Practices for Finding Meaning in Work and Life by Douglas Holladay
  • Paterson Center LifePlan:
In Closing

As a leader, it is important to be a resource in helping your people find meaning in their work by helping team members see the ways they contribute to their individual purpose through their work.

To be this resource:

Embrace and encourage the team conversations about meaning and purpose
Openly share with your team why you do what you do and what your work means to you
Provide reflection exercises and resources for additional reading so team members can do their own independent thinking and work on this important topic

Individual meaning and purpose will be unique for each person on your team and creating a safe environment for these professional discussions will differentiate you as a leader and your organization as an employer.


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