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The Purpose Gap

Written By Jeannie Lucas

The Power of Purpose

Happiness comes from WHAT we do. Fulfillment comes from WHY we do it.

-Simon Sinek

It’s 3:00 AM at the local all-night grocery store mid-pandemic. The woman in front of me is chatting with the check-out clerk, and I overhear her ask, “How are you feeling about having to be here in the middle of the night? Do you feel safe? Are you feeling worn out?”

Without hesitation, the clerk replies, “You know, if my being here helps you get medicine when you need it, and if it provides the health care workers just getting off their shifts a place to get their groceries, then in some small way I’m doing my part.”

Wow. Mic drop moment. 

 

Purpose Creates Perspective

The pandemic was a megaphone for many, amplifying their focus on priorities and purpose in life. 

While getting paid for work was an essential reason for our store clerk to be there that night, she had other motivations. This differentiation was an understanding of her purpose. In the midst of a global pandemic, she understood that her work made a difference in the lives of others. She was able to connect her personal value of helping others to her workplace, which provides resources like food and medicine for the community. And when personal values align with corporate values, good things happen. 

Workers who have “bought in” to the mission make the best advocates and are more likely to stay with the company; they feel more engaged in the company and in their work.

Research suggests that 70 percent of employees feel their sense of purpose is defined by their work. Yet only 18 percent of respondents believe they get as much purpose from work as they want; 62 percent say they get some purpose from work, but they want to get even more. Any way you look at it, there is a big gap and a big opportunity for employers and employees alike. Creating strong links to individual purpose for employees benefits not just the person but also the business. This vital connection helps fill the purpose gap. 

 

Connecting With Purpose

What we do during the week matters. Whether we clerk at a store, run a lawn business, fix plumbing problems for others, or coordinate carpool and lunches for the children in our home, having a sense that our work makes a difference is vital to our well-being. By extension, this is reflected in our homes, workplaces, and our communities. 

Interestingly, among those surveyed, parents were the most reliant on work for purpose. They credited parenthood as the source of this shift to a “big picture” perspective that helped them feel more invested in the future. 

 

Purpose Impact

“It’s an amazing feeling to live with purpose, on purpose,” says best-selling author Simon Sinek. But that purpose “is not just about work, it’s about who we are.” 

Having a sense of purpose is more important than you might think. People with a sense of purpose are more likely to be resilient and handle negative circumstances better. Research shows that those who have a purpose live longer, healthier lives. More of the benefits include:

  • 2.5 times more likely to be free of dementia
  • 22% less likely to exhibit risk factors for stroke
  • 52% less likely to have experienced a stroke

And these are just some of the personal benefits. Organizations benefit as well. Purpose plays a vital role in worker experience, with increased engagement, a stronger commitment to the mission, along with improved feelings of well-being. 

Having and helping instill a sense of purpose is a win-win overall. 

 

Role of Identity and Values

Personal identity and values are guideposts for individual purpose. Psychologists describe identity as an amalgamation of experiences, relationships, memories, and values that create a sense of self. It’s no wonder, then, why the concept of identity and where we get our identity has changed through the years and why generations approach identity differently.

Baby Boomers, for example, tend to have their identities dictated to them by institutions such as the government, school, church, or family. Gen X tends to look inward in an attempt to discover their own identities. But Millennials and Gen Z have yet another approach. They seek to define their own identity, and that identity is fluid and ever-changing. 

Values and what we value are a big part of our identity and help guide us to our purpose in life. While some values are organizational, other values are more personal. It’s these core personal values that help determine standards of behavior, guide our decisions, and even impact our disposition. Values shape how we interact with the world around us. 

But what does this have to do with work?

 

A MOD Example

MOD Pizza was founded in 2008 and is self-described NOT as a pizza place but as a people place. They are a home for “second chances.” Everything about their business helps tell the story of their purpose. They describe pizza as a “platform to make a positive social impact in the lives of our people and the communities we serve.” 

Everything from hiring practices to food sourcing weave together to form their corporate values. And this “people place” cares for its employees in extraordinary ways. Employee videos on their website tell stories of life change being part of the “MOD Squad.” The atmosphere of acceptance, opportunity, inclusivity, and belonging has made its way into their corporate culture. It shows up in their employees and, in turn, is felt by their customers.

When employees connect their personal values to the company’s purpose, good things happen. Research says that respondents with such opportunities are nearly three times more likely than others to feel their purpose is fulfilled at work.

 

The Purpose Advantage

Keeping her eyes open throughout her daily routine, Faith Dill, a stay-at-home mom, also wanted to make an impact and help others.

Dill looked for opportunities defined by self-sacrificial love for the people in her community. She noticed homeless people on street corners with their cardboard signs, looking for food or work. She felt the simultaneous ache to give but also the skepticism for why not to give. While she understood giving money or food would not fix their homelessness, she also knew it would say to someone, “I see you.” 

Dill started keeping a small supply in her car for such situations. Sometimes it was a kit of items, i.e., a toothbrush, toothpaste, gloves, and socks. Other times it was simply a water bottle or a granola bar, but she always offered it with a smile and word of kindness so that no matter what the person’s story, they would feel seen and known.

Her hope? That it impacts the receiver and helps to change her own heart while modeling this example for her growing child. While Dill’s daily vocation doesn’t take her into an office, her faith in God helps connect her personal values of helping others feel seen and loved to a “bigger story.” 

 

The Purpose Connection

Living and working in alignment with personal values is critically important for well-being. If knowing your purpose and aligning your purpose with your daily routine is so important and beneficial, who is responsible for defining that purpose? 

Individual purpose is fluid. It changes over time and in varying degrees. It can be clarified and get stronger, especially in times of crisis or different stages of life.  

Who, then, is in charge of aligning or connecting personal and organizational values? 

 

Purpose Is A Two-Way Street

Sixty-three percent of people surveyed say they want their employer to provide more opportunities for purpose in their day-to-day work. This puts the burden of purpose primarily on the organization. Yet it would be counterintuitive and nearly impossible for an organization to flex its purpose and values on an individual basis.  

How about our store clerk? Did she make the values connection on her own? Or did the grocery store where she worked communicate how her work matters? What about our stay-at-home mom? While her primary purpose is caring for her family, Dill created her own connection to the “bigger story” to impact her community. 

 

Purpose-Driven Steps

As a Christian, I have a dual purpose: to know God intimately and actively engage in the work God has for me in the world. A higher purpose does not supplant personal values and involvement but rather is an impetus for being the hands and feet of Jesus in the here and now. In fact, knowing and articulating personal values can help define and align our greater purpose. For some people, the act of defining and articulating these values can foster empathy and awareness of the needs of others; “the bigger picture.”

A shared sense of purpose in the workplace can create connections among co-workers. A good first step toward defining purpose might be to start an open and ongoing conversation to explore shared values and articulate a collective purpose. In this collaborative process, teams can gain insights into individual aspirations, align them with the organization’s overarching mission, and foster a culture of mutual understanding and support. This approach not only enhances employee engagement and satisfaction but also strengthens the organization’s ability to achieve its goals by harnessing the collective energy and commitment of its workforce. It can be so powerful when everyone begins to row in the same direction.

Open and honest communication is vital to both individuals and the organization. This regular act of honest sharing can build accountability and act as an accelerator to help people consider where and how to bring more of their purpose to work.

“Here’s what I’ve decided: The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”

– Barbara Kingsolver – Author

In this way, we can help one another live more fully at work—an outcome that benefits everyone. 

Let’s not sit around and wait for someone to define a purpose for us. Let’s go out and create it. The sooner we start living out of a sense of purpose, the greater the impact on our lives and the lives of those around us, whether at home, at school, or at work. In this way, we help one another live more fully every day—an outcome that benefits everyone.

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