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How to Improve Engagement at Work: Re-engage with Purpose

To find engagement, focus on purpose. To find your purpose, start with emotional intelligence. 

Each January can feel like a fresh, new beginning. Yet as we start 2023 it’s important for all of us, and especially for leaders and managers to remember that we’re building on top of years of extraordinary stress, burn out and low engagement. Even before the pandemic, only 13 percent of employees felt engaged at work and as of 2021 49 percent of people were experiencing burnout. While individuals are looking for a more profound sense of engagement and purpose, many organizations are struggling to meet them resulting in high levels of turnover.

While increasing engagement is a multifaceted challenge, focusing on building a sense of purpose and meaning at work is an essential part of the equation. For individuals, having meaningful, purposeful work positively impacts personal engagement, job satisfaction, and intrinsic motivation, according to a meta review of research on meaningful work

Purpose is important at the organizational level too. According to PwC, 79% of business leaders believe that purpose is central to success. Despite this, less than half of employees know what their organization stands for and what makes it different. Clearly defining and acting with a sense of purpose is necessary for individuals’ engagement and well-being, and for business success. 

What is purpose at work? 

We define purpose as the intention and ongoing process of aligning with your strengths, values, and desired impact to cultivate the best version of yourself (or your team or organization) that fills you with meaning and fulfillment and allows you to be of service to the world.

How does emotional intelligence relate to purpose?

Cultivating purpose starts with a foundation of emotional intelligence (or EI). Working with purpose is an emotional experience that requires awareness of our feelings, strengths and preferences. EI helps us understand ourselves, what’s meaningful to us and how our actions impact those around us. 

In Daniel Goleman’s original framework on emotional intelligence (or EI) that popularized the concept in 1980, he defined EI as including: self-awareness, self-management, motivation, empathy and social skills. These aspects are just as relevant for us as individuals building our own sense of purpose as they are for teams and organizations that want to build an engaged, meaningful and purposeful workplace. 

Aligning with purpose requires all of these facets of EI:

  • Awareness: purpose requires a detailed understanding of our strengths, interests and preferences. 

  • Management: building purpose translates our awareness and understanding into aligned action.

  • Motivation: purpose is a result of aligning with what motivates us, our values and vision of where we want to go.

  • Empathy and Compassion: purpose must include our impact on others; empathy and compassion build this awareness and our desire for positive impact. 

  • Social and Leadership Skills: to live into our purpose will mean engaging with others at many levels, from our daily interactions to how we lead and influence our communities and teams, to how our organizations influence the greater sector and world.  

Increasing awareness is key to cultivating purpose

Just as self-awareness is the foundational emotional intelligence skill, it’s also the critical first step of cultivating purpose. Building a detailed understanding of our strengths, interests, unique capacities, and our values help us make choices that allow us to align to them. Though our sense of meaning at work can vary from job-to-job or organization-to-organization, it also hinges on an awareness of how we define our work. According to research from Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale University, as covered in the Hidden Brain podcast, hospital cleaning staff who considered their impact on the patients and took on small, extra tasks, such as fetching a glass of water for a patient, were happier and more fulfilled than those who saw their job as narrowly defined cleaning responsibilities. In other words, the cleaning staff who saw and cultivated a sense of meaning in their impact on patients had a greater overall sense of purpose and happiness. 

How to increase purpose at work

For us as individuals, increasing our awareness starts with an understanding of our strengths and the default story about our role that we’re telling ourselves. From there, increasing purpose might mean something as small as taking on an extra project that we’re curious about (or saying no to one that isn’t aligned) or updating the story of how we see our role- or it could be as big as a new career direction. For teams, building awareness means clarity about the team’s role and contribution to the larger organization. This might mean taking time to craft a team purpose statement- even a simple reframe of the organization’s purpose or mission statement, framed in terms of how the team contributes to this directly. For organizations, awareness means an honest assessment of the strengths of the organization, its values and how well the organization is actually living them out, and what the story the organization tells about its purpose and impact in its industry and in the world. 

Purpose must include impact

In general, when our work includes helping others, we tend to see it as more meaningful, according to a study from Purdue University. However, there are many ways to help. Cultivating purpose in our work means understanding our own preferences on how we like to help. Aaron Hurst, author and founder of the Taproot Foundation, has found that people find meaning in one of three paths: by impacting individuals, organizations or society. To illustrate this, Hurst highlights the difference between a doctor (working directly with individuals), hospital administration (impacting an organization), and a health policy expert (that works at a society-wide level). We need people and organizations that address all three levels for a healthier community, but we each get to decide what aligns best with our strengths and interests and our preferred way of working. 

The impact of purpose on organizational success

BlackRock’s CEO, Larry Fink recognizes the importance of purpose and impact for organizations. In 2022, he wrote the following in his annual Letter to CEOs: “Over the past three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with countless CEOs and to learn what distinguishes truly great companies. Time and again, what they all share is that they have a clear sense of purpose; consistent values; and, crucially, they recognize the importance of engaging with and delivering for their key stakeholders.” Fink makes the point that this alignment of values and delivering for stakeholders (not just shareholders) is what drives profit and performance in the long-term. Mercer’s Global Talent Trends 2022 report confirms this, noting that high-growth companies are “three times more likely to contribute to the wider community and show purpose at a societal level.”

Reflecting on purpose at work

Purpose is an evolving process, not a destination or an achievement. It’s an intention that you set and evolves over your lifetime as you grow and as the world around you changes.  It can start with a simple process of building emotional intelligence and awareness around what is meaningful for you right now. 

One simple way to do a purpose check in as we start this year comes from research from Great Place to Work. Their research indicates the following three factors predict workplace turnover: pride, meaning and enjoyment. Cultivating more of these qualities, and adding in a sense of impact, are a great starting point to build more purpose where you are. You might try this on your own or with your team- these can be prompts for solo journaling or for a team discussion:

  • What are you most proud of about your work? What would help increase your sense of pride?

  • What is most meaningful in your work? What would help build a sense of meaning for you this year?

  • What was most enjoyable about work last year? What would help you have more enjoyment and fun this year?

  • What impact has your work had on those around you? What would help you increase this impact or the meaning of it?

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