The search for meaning in the workplace

1 Feb 2018
Associate Professor Tim Kastelle
Associate Professor Tim Kastelle

This article originally appeared in In The Black, by author Candice Chung, on 2 February 2018.

Research shows firms with a well-defined purpose outperform competitors by up to 38 per cent. However, the first step in finding that purpose is for leaders to listen, rather than lead.

At its best, work is more than an activity we do to pay the rent and put food on the table; it’s an expression of ourselves. In 2016, however, Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report found that, worldwide, only 13 per cent of employees in organisations were truly engaged. That means a startling 87 per cent weren’t, leading to problems of high staff turnover, lower productivity and a lack of innovation and ideas.

What’s the solution?

A number of workplace experts believe the cure for disengagement lies in this single question: Does what we do fit our sense of purpose?

“Purpose is born of a desire to make a contribution to something greater than [ourselves],” writes Nicholas Barnett, chief executive of Insync Surveys, former KPMG partner and co-author of Why Purpose Matters. “It is rooted in our quest to find something worthy to serve that is meaningful and fulfilling.” 

While financial rewards are a valid (and necessary) motivation to get our jobs done, the best leaders can tap into a secret ingredient that drives authentic engagement: our basic desire to feel we matter, and that what we do, no matter how complex or tedious, makes a difference. 

“[Having a sense of purpose] helps us find meaning in our daily endeavours,” says Barnett.

In the same way, for companies to thrive, a greater sense of meaning is needed to excite customers, galvanise staff, and inform long-term decision-making to go beyond the bottom line.

“For organisations, purpose is an expression of the contribution we collectively wish to make to our customers, staff members, shareholders, industry and community. It defines the reason for our organisation’s existence and gives us a profound sense of why we do what we do on a daily basis,” Barnett explains.

Economics of purpose

Research data is clear on the financial benefits of being a purpose-driven organisation. A 2016 study by University of Queensland researchers, “What creates advantage in the ‘social era’?”, found that firms with a well-defined purpose outperformed their competitors by up to 38 per cent.

“These positive outcomes arise through a combination of factors,” says Tim Kastelle, the study’s co-author and MBA program director for the UQ Business School. “The primary drivers of performance in the vast majority of organisations are people. Purpose leads to happier teams, higher employee retention rates and higher levels of individual performance. In combination, these factors drive an organisation’s performance outcomes.”

What’s more, today’s best workers, particularly millennials, are five times more likely to want to work for a company with purpose, according to Barnett. “If you want top talent, or [to] energise and engage them, find something meaningful and worthy to serve; [something] that goes way beyond making money for your boss, yourself and the shareholders,” he says.

You can read the full article here