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Meaning, Purpose, and Performance

Friday Reads

For over 15 years, Gallup has published their annual “State of the American Workplace” report, and one of the consistent features of that report has been the assessment of engagement in the workplace. I’m always struck by the persistently low levels of employees who report being “engaged” (which is usually around 30%, +/- a few %), and even more struck by the number of employees who report being “actively disengaged” or “not engaged” who together account for approx. 70% of the workforce. That level of disengagement represents not only a large economic cost to individual companies and society, but also an extraordinary waste of human potential.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve read a couple of articles addressing the importance of finding meaning in the workplace and its role as a contributor to happiness. In Creating a Purpose Driven Organization, the cover story in the July/August issue of HBR, Robert Quinn of the University of Michigan and Anjian Thakor of Washington University make a case for purpose-driven organizations having higher levels of financial and operating performance.

Many of the points they emphasize relate directly to the work we do with our clients; chief amongst them is recognizing that people are not rational, economic agents, but are instead thinking and feeling humans, who join, stay, and leave organizations for reasons which often go far beyond the pure economic transaction of employee and employer. Seeing organizations as comprised of homo sapiens and not homo economicus, underscores the importance of things like relationship building, authentic communication, and fostering connection, collaboration, and learning as critical prerequisites to a high levels of operational and financial performance. Organizations are social systems, making leadership an inherently social activity. Quinn and Thakor outline 8 key components of an integrated strategy for transforming an organization into one taps into people’s energy and commitment. These include things like: discovering an organization’s purpose, discussing it continuously and authentically, connecting people to purpose, and unleashing the pool of change agents who naturally reside in every team.

In a separate article on Aeon, the online magazine, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, examines the distinctions and overlaps between a happy life and a meaningful life. The Meanings of Life discusses his research has some interesting findings regarding how we perceive happiness and meaningfulness. He finds that the meaningful life has four primary features:

  1. Purpose that guides our actions from the past and the present into the future.
  2. Values that help us distinguish between good and bad,
  3. Actions which make a positive contribution toward realizing our goals
  4. Recognizing ourselves as good and worthy people

Baumeister’s findings concur with many of the proposals made by Quin and Thakor; including “purpose” serving as a focal point defining priorities and describing why an organization does what it does, and the importance of values in aligning intent and behavior.

The concepts of meaning and purpose in the workplace raise the question as to what role a more purpose-driven organization can have in improving the persistently low levels of engagement in the American workplace. They also offer another perspective for leaders to consider as they seek to build adaptable organizations that can sustain success in an era of increasing complexity and uncertainty. Looking beyond the statistics of engagement, what else might we gain as individuals, leaders, organizations, and as a society from a more deliberate focus on purpose and meaning?


Additional reading:

  • If you’re interested in digging deeper into this topic, here are some additional resources you might find useful:
  • An August 1st article on BloombergOpinion asserts that capitalism is creating an entire class of meaningless jobs.  The author poses some challenging critiques about power and the hoarding of economic rents leading to a distinct stratification of the quality of jobs.  You may be surprised by the types of jobs that fall in to the “meaningless” category. 
  • The research by Gartenberg, Prat, and Serafeim that is referenced in the HBR article can be found 

here.  While you may not have time to work through their research methodology and analysis, their conclusion (on page 36) outlines their findings, and suggests areas for future research.  

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