Foster individual purpose within your organization

In stressful times, it’s understandable to fixate on hard-nosed business priorities at the expense of more intangible considerations. But getting your people to contemplate their “purpose in life” is crucial.

Individual purpose can be thought of as an overarching sense of what matters in our lives. While what people find meaningful tends to evolve over time, it can shift relatively quickly, particularly in response to life-changing events.

People with a strong sense of purpose tend to be more resilient and recover better from crises. Indeed, research we conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that people who were “living their purpose” at work reported levels of well-being five times higher than those who weren’t.

Individual purpose benefits organizations, too. People whose individual purpose aligns with their jobs tend to be more productive and likely to outperform their peers. Our research finds a positive correlation between the purposefulness of employees and their company’s EBITDA margin.

To better understand how people experience purpose, we developed a survey to map the type and intensity of universally held values like tradition, security, power, and achievement. Analysis of the responses revealed nine common ways that people orient themselves toward purpose (see Exhibit). Forward-looking companies and leaders should focus on purpose as part of a broader effort to ensure that employees are healthy and motivated.

Help people take action

Start by simply discussing these matters with your team. This can help people better identify and articulate their purpose, and live it more fully at work. One effective approach is through periodic, guided conversations. Think of these as empathetic check-ins to understand how employees are doing and how you can support them.

One CEO found that articulating his sense of purpose was the first step to becoming a more observant, empathetic leader.

“With my team, I do my best to check in emotionally during meetings, and not be afraid to share my own weaknesses and doubts. The idea of being vulnerable in front of a group of people is no longer something to be ashamed of, but rather a strength. I’m a better listener now. Whenever I feel disconnected from my purpose, I get flustered, lose sleep, and generally feel stressed out. This is a biological signal for me to stop, get back to what matters, and search for whatever it is that feels untrue so I can make it truthful.”

Reimagining a purpose-led future

There are many ways to help ignite purpose across an organization. For example, one large retailer dedicates time for a regular “purpose pause,” where teammates celebrate their involvement in community projects. In another example, an online retailer created a hotline to help people deal with the pandemic. Callers need not be customers, and the topics can be anything—from food delivery to essential supplies to whatever is on a caller’s mind.

Even if you’re not ready to go quite this far, you can help people live their purpose by tailoring projects, support, communication, and coaching to suit different needs, values, and situations. Create time for people to explore how their work fits into the bigger picture, using the nine types of purpose as a starting point.

The more you can connect purpose to recruiting, onboarding, and performance management, the more likely the benefits will build upon one another. People who can draw energy and direction from a sense of individual purpose will weather challenging times with more resilience. And, of course, purposeful work and a purposeful life are enduring benefits in and of themselves—ones that everyone should have the opportunity to seek.

For more information, please read the article “Igniting individual purpose in times of crisis.”

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice