Why is it so hard to achieve purpose at work?

Purpose At Work

I flew BOS — > DFW and then back last week, and on the first flight (and a little into the second flight), I read the new issue of Fast Company. Their cover package was on “Generation Flux,” which is a nice branded way of talking about providing purpose at work — and how providing purpose will be the thing that drives companies in the future. It feels like we’ve been saying that a lot, but it doesn’t really happen. So where’s the disconnect?

Let’s start here: purpose is important to work. That’s been proven by research, and then again by more research. If you want people to be successful and good at their jobs, by and large, you need to align individual purpose with organizational purpose. Basically, a person needs to understand why they’re sitting at a job all day. After a while, if they have no idea how the vision/message aligns, they’ll get bored, frustrated, tired of the side shit, and go somewhere else.

Here’s where the problem starts. People leave jobs all the time. In the time I’ve been typing this post, I bet 2-3 people somewhere in the world have left a job, or decided finally to leave a job. As a result, people are viewed as interchangeable by a lot of managers. The theory is this: I have a great Product A, and I have People 1-10 working on it. If 2, 3, 4, and 7 leave, I’ll replace them with four other people, and Product A will still be OK and keeping making us money.

Product > People.

There’s a lot wrong with that theory, but it is pretty common among managers.

Think about it this way: if people truly cared about ideas like “employee engagement,” they wouldn’t house them out of HR. I know that sounds mean, but it’s simple logic. HR is not viewed by people as a revenue-generating thing (it’s often not). The areas that drive revenue are the areas that get attention in most companies. If you want something to be adopted by a lot of people, it needs to come out of one of those houses. Anything that comes from HR is typically viewed as “an initiative,” which is a fancy way of saying “… something you can eventually ignore.”

As a result of this “… people don’t really matter…” attitude you see a lot, it’s really hard for purpose, as a concept, to be established in an organization. People typically look upwards for purpose and strategy — that is, they don’t often define it within themselves. The purpose of most organizations, especially public ones, is “to make money.” But leaders don’t want to come right out and say that — except in some parts of the finance world — so they couch it in things around “mission” and “values,” which are ultimately fancy ways of saying “We need to make money and keep a generally-acceptable level of personal relationships here.”

Here’s the thing: people need money to live, and jobs give you money. Remember this?

People will continue to have jobs — although there are different viewpoints on this — and as a result of people needing money to do the things they want (because literally the only reason to pursue money is freedom to do what you want), they will continue to tolerate workplaces where individual purpose and organizational purpose are not aligned.

But here’s where it gets interesting: if you believe “the millennial generation” — probably the most-written-about thing in the journalism world aside from the middle class — is really interested in purpose and engagement, what will happen when those people start becoming managers and leaders of orgs? Will they continue to focus on it, or will their priorities shift? Will hierarchy still be a major thing?

You know that joke about “… show me a conservative under 40 and I’ll show you someone with no heart, but show me a liberal over 40 and I’ll show you someone with no brain?” That joke is basically about priorities shifting as you get older, etc, etc. That’s all true — and it really does happen. So as millennials grow up and gain responsibility, can purpose remain something they pursue? Or will it be all meetings and conference calls and quarterly projections and sales figures?

That right there — what happens to millennials when they become 45 or so — might determine the very future of the nature of work. Oh, that and robots.

Ted Bauer