Does your job feel like torture? Probably not, but the Spanish word for job is trabajo, which is derived from the vulgar Latin word for “torture.” The truth is that most jobs are simply too small for us.
As human beings we desire more. In short, we want to have meaning and purpose in what we do because we want to make a difference that matters. One of the least tapped engines of engagement and performance at work is purpose, something we explore in depth in our new book, The Purpose Revolution-How Leaders Create Engagement and Competitive Advantage in an Age of Social Good.
Purpose is the best way to boost employee engagement among your people as well as for yourself. When people have purpose at work and see their job as a true calling instead of just a career or a means to an end, they are more engaged, satisfied, and committed to the organization. They also are less inclined to leave their employer and they even call in sick less often.
Why is purpose the key? We feel deeply satisfied when our work creates purpose and becomes more than just a job. And for many, having purpose is the greatest job perk there is.
Take zookeepers, who love their work despite being typically well-educated but notoriously underpaid, and spend many hours scrubbing enclosures and picking up waste. On the surface, it can be a tough job to be exposed to the elements and responsible for dirty work, but researchers have found that zookeepers love their work.
Many have a sense they are “born to do this job” and that their role has a deeper meaning because it serves a greater purpose: improving the health and wellbeing of animals, creating educational opportunities for the public about the conservation of endangered species, and the importance of biodiversity in natural habitats.
Not every organization needs a zookeeper, but each one could certainly benefit from employees who are purpose focused, engaged and motivated to do their best. The best way to drive purpose and boost employee engagement is to separate job function from purpose.
Job function is what you do–the set of tasks a person performs–whereas job purpose is what results: the greater impact on customers or society.
For example, consider a person who issues building permits in a municipality. Their job function is to process the permits, but their job purpose is to ensure public safety by requiring contractors and homeowners to meet specific building standards, which results in injuries prevented and lives saved. Saving lives feels like something to celebrate more than stamping paper. It’s not hard to imagine how this mindset helps bring more purpose to jobs that might otherwise seem less meaningful.
The way to connect employees with their job purpose over their job function is to directly explain the greater value behind their tasks. The employees need to understand the difference they actually make in the lives of your customers.
For example, a customer service representative at a large hardware retailer has the job function of answering questions and stocking the shelves, but their purpose might be to help customers find cost-effective solutions to their problems and to empower them to learn new skills.
It may be necessary to reiterate this point during group or one on one meetings, but once employees internalize it, they’re likely to view their job in a different, more positive way. When employees understand that they are contributing to a larger overall effort, they feel a sense of connection to their work, their colleagues, and the organization’s purpose.
One of the key leadership roles is to consistently create what we call “line of sight” to purpose. We spoke with the largest Molly Maid franchise owner in Canada, who attributes his success as much to higher purpose as to a thorough cleaning of a home.
During our discussion he talked about the fact that many of his clients are older people who may not get many visitors. He therefore encourages his employees to take a few extra minutes to chat with clients when they arrive on-site or before they leave. He challenges his team to reframe their work toward a higher purpose: helping alleviate loneliness. Both the employees and the clients appreciate these conversations, which result in stronger relationships, loyal customers, and happier employees.
Employees with purpose are extremely valuable to companies. For example, we were working with a large retail bank that was trying to encourage its customer service representatives to up-sell clients on more of the bank’s services. From a business perspective, the function of this is to “get a larger share of wallet” by selling financial products— loans, credit cards, investment accounts, and the like.
We discovered that when leaders focused the employees on the purpose behind this upselling, rather than merely the function, sales increased. That’s because the leaders were able to demonstrate how “helping clients simplify their financial lives and get the best products to meet their needs” was important.
Articulated in this way, many of the service reps felt more charged to help their clients better their lives and plan their futures through financial management. In the end, customers were supported, sales increased and employees were able to make a measurable difference in people’s lives.
So, let’s get started with the shift from job function to purpose. You can creatively brainstorm this simple purpose exercise with your staff. The results will be enlightening as people think differently about their roles in the organization and their greater impact on society.
1) Ask staff how their job provides them with personal meaning, and how it makes a difference to others
2) Have them make a list of the main job functions in their area of responsibility, with brief descriptions of the role and tasks
3) Brainstorm a big list of ways the job makes a difference: How does it make someone’s life, society, or the planet better?
4) Craft simple “higher-calling” or purpose statements
The following are a few examples to get you thinking:
When you can help people connect with their job purpose—so that they see it as separate from their job function—they discover how their position can be a calling and not merely a job. Their engagement and performance will naturally increase, and they will be more fulfilled at work and in their personal lives. Explaining purpose to others and driving purpose in an organization take practice, but once mastered these skills can make a big difference to the success of a team or company.
John Izzo is co-author of The Purpose Revolution and president of Izzo Associates. He has spoken to over one million people and advised over 500 companies, including IBM, Qantas, the Mayo Clinic, Verizon, RBC, TELUS, Walmart, DuPont, Humana, Microsoft, and IBM. He is the author or coauthor of six books, including Awakening Corporate Soul.
Jeff Vanderwielen is co-author of The Purpose Revolution and vice president of consulting at Izzo Associates and a former senior change consultant at Ernst & Young with 20-plus years of experience helping organizations manage large-scale change and articulate a compelling purpose – their core good – as the organizing center for their vision, strategy, and culture.
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