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Talking about “purpose” and work is getting f’n tedious

The rise of thought leadership has given us a few problems. I won’t enumerate them all.

Here’s one, though: every single article about business, business improvement, productivity, leadership, management, etc. contains some variation of this sentence:

“… lead from a place of purpose…”

or maybe:

“… set your North Star and point employees to the purpose of the work…”

This is actually becoming both troubling and tedious. Why? I will enumerate that.

Generally on purpose in jobs 

You can pick out some professions and say “That must have a lot of purpose.”

Let’s try: doctors, disaster relief workers, (modern age) engineers.

They do.

All jobs have some degree of purpose, even the completely dead-end ones.

(More on that in a second.)

But all those jobs also have huge pockets of paperwork, tedium, politics, client demands, etc.

I’ve known doctors who say about 20-30% of their year max feels purposeful.

That’s a lot for some professions, sure.

But that still means 70% of the time isn’t purposeful.

You can call this “shallow work vs. deep work” if you want, or just admit all jobs have some degree of tedium and annoyance to them.

Either way, there’s no real thing as “full purpose” in a job.

You could love your gig and feel like you’re making the world a better place every day, but you probably ain’t gonna feel purposeful or love the context/people every day.

Most people come nowhere near approaching purpose

I know words like “engagement” are insanely fluffy.

But let’s connect “engagement” to “purpose” for a second. They’re definitely a little different. But if you felt you had purpose in your job, wouldn’t you likely feel somewhat engaged to it? Stands to reason potentially.

Well, 15% of the global workforce reports feeling “engaged.”

So even if the connection is pretty weak between those two terms, feels like it stands to reason there isn’t a ton of “purpose” out there either.

Some of this is because we define the concept wrong, because it can’t be defined

… it means something different to everyone. For some, purpose is a nacho bar. For some it’s three days work from home. And for some it’s $165,000/annually. It varies.

From “You Don’t Find Your Purpose, You Build It:”

Most of us will have multiple sources of purpose in our lives. For me, I find purpose in my children, my marriage, my faith, my writing, my work, and my community. For almost everyone, there’s no one thing we can find. It’s not purpose but purposes we are looking for — the multiple sources of meaning that help us find value in our work and lives. Professional commitments are only one component of this meaning, and often our work isn’t central to our purpose but a means to helping others, including our families and communities. Acknowledging these multiple sources of purpose takes the pressure off of finding a single thing to give our lives meaning.

My favorite line in there is “professional commitments are only one component of this meaning.” Wish more people “got” that one.

… and some of the problem is how “purpose” works in companies

In a for-profit, white-collar company — or any company trying to run as a business, admittedly — these things are usually true:

  • There is a slate of decision-makers or stakeholders
  • They are predominantly focused on financials and relationship-building
  • Their own incentives are tied to those

Now, an executive is allowed to say “purpose” in speeches. Many do — and say it all the time.

But do they actually care?

The good ones do, sure.

Do most?

No.

Because it has nothing to do with their actual job/role in their head.

Most dismiss it privately as “a HR thing.”

It’s almost never going to rise up their weekly agenda ahead of any call/meeting about financials.

So the decision-makers don’t have an incentive to care. No bueno.

Oh, one more issue

Many confuse “We offered these perks” (waffles, jeans on Friday) with “benefits” (which are real things you need for your family) or “providing purpose” (which again, varies by person).

Perks are cool, sure. Who doesn’t like Bumper Billiards?

But are perks the same as purpose?

No.

So should thought leaders stop discussing purpose?

Well, if they did most of them would have nothing left to say.

Guess that could be a good thing.

But no, here’s the real deal.

We need to stop discussing “purpose” at work in these contexts:

  1. “It will solve all your problems.”
  2. “Here is the word without any definition or attempt to discuss it more deeply.”

The answer to (1) above is usually “shitty managers everywhere” and not “lack of purpose.” (2) is “assuming readers are dumb as hell anyway.”

Seriously, though, how many articles use a term like “purpose” or “mission” or “vision” and make no attempt to define them?

I probably wouldn’t start writing about Gruyere cheese and not at least casually mention how/what that is.

Maybe that’s just me.

Could managers actually provide purpose?

The good ones can and do, yes.

The bad ones, no.

Single-biggest reason for that is misaligned incentives and lack of quantification on “purpose.”

Most people chase what they think will get them more or something better, and that’s usually hitting markers and checking boxes.

It’s not typically “providing purpose.”

That’s the essence of the problem in one or two sentences.

What sadly happens too much is managers moving in the complete opposite direction, like 60% claiming they “don’t have the time” to respect their employees. 

You just get so focused on your marks and the boxes in front of you.

And instead of offering “purpose” or “vision,” you just ignore the people and try to chase the process.

Sad.

But that’s work for many.

What should we do instead of discussing purpose?

Discuss actionable things that people have done to make work better for employees and customers alike.

Like here’s an idea on how to give feedback from John Wooden.

Or here’s a way to prioritize your time courtesy of Dwight Eisenhower.

What about a company making millions discussing failure more openly?

Everyone is different, and no one is really learning a ton from business journalism anyway.

It’s largely a lot of filler about concepts like, well, purpose.

But if we gave people actionable ideas for managing people better, maybe … just maybe … JUST MAYBE … this shit would get better.

In the meantime, say it loud and say it proud:

“Establish your purpose and root your employees in it…”

Ted Bauer

2 Comments

  1. If one more millennial says to me, “But what is your ‘Why’?” I am very likely to end up in jail.

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