Meaningful Work – Purpose by Design

I enjoy the privilege of mentoring a broad cross-section of people who are at different stages of their careers. One of the most notable trends in those conversations over the past ten years has been a shift away from focusing on a career path and corporate ladder climbing aspirations toward finding meaning and purpose at work. While there is a generational bias to those conversations, with Millennials leading the way, the effects of globalization, flatter organizations, and the emphasis on knowledge-based teams (local and virtual) have made the ‘purpose at work’ conversation more relevant for people at all ages and levels of experience.

Overwhelmingly, research on ‘purpose at work’ shows that people who find meaning in their work report better performance and well-being. For example, the Harvard Business School Gartenberg Study connected clarity of purpose with a positive impact on both operating financial performance and shareholder returns. Reminiscent of the employee engagement movement of the mid-1990s and early 2000s, “purpose” has become a hot topic. A Google search for “purpose at work” returns 1.4 million results. “Find purpose” has become a mantra in many organizations, with people who find greater meaning in their work reporting that they are more resilient in the face of challenges and seeing mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failures. So, like engagement, “purpose” is seen as good for the organization and the individual, with people more likely to thrive and grow when they experience their work as meaningful. And, like employee engagement, the big question for leaders is “How do I help employees foster and sustain purpose in their work?”

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So Much Advice

From existentialist reflections on life and work to building a case for how office layout and furniture choices can contribute to shared purpose and prosperity, there is no lack of advice on how to go about finding greater purpose in one’s work. In their recent HBR article, Creating a Purpose Driven Organization, Robert Quinn and Anjan Thakor describe how leaders can inspire people to bring more energy to their role by connecting them with a higher sense of purpose. Based on their research, the authors suggest an eight-element framework for fostering employee purpose that spans from discovering the purpose of the organization to connecting people to that purpose. The framework is comprehensive and provides a valuable roadmap for executives who want their organizations to be more clearly purpose-driven. It also highlights the challenge for the tens of thousands of first-level team leaders and mid-level managers who simply need their teams to be more productive and want to elevate their people’s experience. They can’t wait for a “once-in-a-generation” organizational transformation effort to trickle down to them.

Alternatively, Lewis Garrad and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic approach finding purpose at work through the lens of leader behavior. In their article, How to Make Work More Meaningful for Your Team, the authors identify four behaviors that purpose-focused leaders simultaneously exhibit and engage in:

  • Curiosity and inquisitiveness
  • Challenging their employees and being relentless
  • Hiring for values and cultural fit
  • Trusting

Again, compelling observations from research. However, for most first-level team leaders and mid-level managers, over-loaded days and limited access to coaching resources leave little hope for meaningful change in a leader’s personality and behavior.

If your days feel like you and your team are changing tires on a moving car, then you only have time for solutions that are simple to implement and effective in their outcome. The key question is what actions can you realistically take to ensure that both the organization and your team reap the rewards of finding real purpose at work?

The Power in Role Design

Finding purpose in our work depends heavily upon knowing that we are making a difference to others as we strive to accomplish our goals, that we have the skills to achieve those goals, and that we have the freedom to pursue those goals. One area where the key elements that foster purpose at work converge is in the design of team member roles.

Good role design, or job design as it is more commonly known, requires focus on both content and context. Role content includes goals, responsibilities, and competencies. Developing or crafting role content collaboratively with each team member can help ensure that their role promotes purpose.

Role context includes clearly articulated team norms, the important relationships upon which success and purpose depend, and how feedback from those relationships is regularly gathered and communicated. This last element of job design, continual feedback, is critical to sustaining purpose in anyone’s work – providing a simple, powerful means of reinforcing and sustaining purpose – and it’s almost always missing in the design of people’s roles.

Purpose by Design

“Purpose” is a complex psychological construct made up of many factors that are beyond the control of most team leaders or managers. As a team leader, your day-to-day reality may make it challenging to help your team members find greater purpose in their work, particularly when doing so requires support or resources outside of your control. Yet, the benefits in terms of team performance and individual well-being make the effort worthwhile. The key is to focus on what you can control and prioritize your efforts towards the most straightforward and effective actions first – starting with getting role design right.

As you design the roles on your team, be mindful and explicit about both job content and context. Most importantly, make it clear how each team member will gather feedback across the key relationships that matter the most. Doing so will go a long way toward ensuring that every team member finds and sustains purpose in their work.

Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization. Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakor. HBR July/August 2018.

Gartenberg, Claudine, Andrea Prat, and George Serafeim. “Corporate Purpose and Financial Performance.” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 17-023, September 2016.

How to Make Work More Meaningful for Your Team. Lewis Garrad and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. HBR August 09, 2017.

Employees want their job to matter but meaning at work can be hard to find.

Timsa, D. Derks & A. Bakker (2016). Job crafting and its relationships with person–job fit and meaningfulness: A three-wave study. Journal of Vocational Behavior. Volume 92, 2016, 44-53. doi: 10.1016/j.jvb.2015.11.007


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.