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Are You Creating Purpose Through Your Leadership?


Over the past few months, I’ve been noticing a common thread in my work with various leaders and organizations, as well through my various speaking engagements with audiences in Canada and the US. Regardless of whether it’s the private or public sector, there’s a clear desire out there among many leaders to understand how to better engage their employees in the work they do.

No doubt a key factor behind this drive to better understand how to get employees to fully commit their discretionary efforts to their organization’s shared purpose stems from the realities of leading today’s organizations. Faced with increasing demands on their time, attention, and limited resources, it’s very easy for leaders to lose sight of what their employees truly need to feel inspired and empowered in the contributions they make to their organization.

Certainly, there are numerous studies out there which help shed some light on just how far organizations and their leaders have to go to improve employee engagement and productivity in their workplace.

From Gallup’s finding that only 13% of employees in 140 countries surveyed were engaged in the work they do, to’s multi-year findings that 20% of a typical workday in US organizations is spent on non-work related tasks because employees don’t get a sense of value from what they do, it’s clear that this is a critical issue for every leader to consider and address.

Of course, when faced with such findings, it’s easy for leaders to either assume their organization is the exception to these findings, or that to address these issues requires some large-scale transformation in terms of the type of work they assign to their employees.

Regardless of how leaders choose to react to such findings about the realities found in today’s workplaces, one thing that’s clear is that in order to truly improve the way we work, leaders need to shift their focus from what their employees do to why they do what they do.

To help illustrate this idea, I often share with my clients and conference attendees the work of Yale School of Management professor Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues who have found that all of us experience our work in one of three ways – as a job, as a career, or as a calling.

Now many of us wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a firefighter or a doctor sees their work as being their calling. Certainly, we’ve all heard interviews with actors, singers and dancers who often talk about their craft being their calling.

But what about our employees? Is it possible that they might see the work they do in our organization as being their calling? It’s a question Dr. Wrzesniewski and her team wanted to answer and to make sure they got a clear answer to this question, they decided to examine a group of workers that many of us wouldn’t expect to hear say that what they do is their calling – hospital cleaners.

In their study of this group of hospital cleaners, not surprisingly, they found that one group of these workers saw their work as just being a job that wasn’t very exciting or meaningful. And yet, in the second group of hospital cleaners, they found that these employees experienced the exact same work as being meaningful and important.

What’s more, these hospital cleaners didn’t view themselves as being simply custodial workers as they went out of their way to learn as much as they could about the patients – from whether certain cleaning products irritated some of the patients, to which patients had no visitors so that they could spend more time cleaning their rooms to keep them company.

In each case, these hospital cleaners were found to not only be more creative and innovative in how they approached their work cleaning the rooms and hallways of this hospital, but they were more engaging with the nurses, patients, and visitors.

As Dr. Wrzesniewski and her team described in their findings, these employees were not simply feeling better about the work they did, they had a completely different perspective and outlook about the nature of their work and the contributions they were making to their organization.

Now the reason why I love sharing these research findings is because it helps leaders to understand two important truths about how to bring out the best in those they lead.

First, it helps us to realize that we don’t have to provide our employees with glamorous or exciting work in order to get them to bring their full selves to the work they do. Rather, to inspire people to do their best, we need to connect what they do with what matters to them [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

And second, that the experience our employees have as members of our community has less to do with their role in our organization and more to do with how we help to shape their understanding and perspective of the value they create for our organization. In other words, it’s not what we do that matters, but whether we make a difference and feel valued in what we do [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

Again, it’s natural to think that to bring out the best in those we lead, we have to commit ourselves to creating these lofty goals; these pie-in-the-sky notions of what kind of future we’ll create through our collective efforts. And then when faced with the rising demands on our time, energy, and resources, it’s easy to relegate such notions to the wishful thinking pile in favour of approaching things from a more practical viewpoint.

And yet, what this study’s findings reveal is that the key to inspiring our employees to willingly commit their discretionary efforts to our organization’s vision is helping them to derive a sense of meaning and purpose in what they do.

For this to happen, leaders can’t rely on the occasional, proverbial pat-on-the-back or the annual performance review to let their employees know that the work they do matters; that it’s important and that people care about what they do.

Rather, what’s required is an on-going conversation, of building relationships with those we lead to help them feel that connection between their contributions and the shared purpose of our organization. After all, a purpose-lead workforce is the ultimate sustainable advantage in today’s global environment [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

This is something that every leader can do today because it’s not about changing what our employees do, but helping them to reframe how they view their contributions. It’s about helping them to see and understand the context of their contributions because we’re paying attention to them.

We’re reaching out to listen and understand what it is that they want to accomplish; what gets them excited and willing to challenge and stretch themselves to be better than they are today, and how we can connect that to the overarching vision of our organization.

This is why we see so much being written today about the importance of emotional intelligence to succeeding at leadership. It’s no longer enough to be the smartest person in the room because it’s no longer about you.

Rather, it’s about the people around you and what they want to achieve; what are their dreams, their goals, their hopes and aspirations. Indeed, leadership is not about having all the answers; it’s about creating meaning for those you lead [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

These are things we can’t learn through the conventional routes of the past, but through embracing the demands and expectations employees have of today’s leaders to be more open, to be more transparent, and to be more attentive to hearing what those around them have to say and share.

That’s not to say that leaders have to abdicate their responsibility to making those final decisions and the hard choices. But it does mean that we have to ensure that our employees feel heard and understood if we are to make them feel like what they do and experience matters.

In his book, “Salt from My Attic”, John A. Shedd wrote:

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for .”

The truth is we can hide behind the busyness of our digital world, with its ever-growing tide of distractions and notifications which attempt to take our attention away from that which matters. Or we can recognize the truth of what we’re meant to do with our leadership – that leadership is not about doing things that are safe to do, but doing the work we’re meant to do [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

The fact is all of us have a choice – we can choose to do the work of today, working to simply get things done and measuring our efforts in quarterly reports and analyses.

Or we can take our boat out from this safe harbour and ride whatever seas await us out there so we can do the work of tomorrow, our life’s work – where we’re not just creating success for our organization, but a sense of purpose for those we lead.

In the end, which of these choices we choose to make will ultimately serve to define what kind of leader we were, and the real impact we had on those around us and on those we serve.

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