How a Sense of Purpose Motivates at Work

Ask anyone what gives them a sense of purpose and the answer is almost universal — help others. That first question is easy — it seems the desire to give back to humanity is part of our instinct. It’s the next question that gets people stumped: How?

A few years ago I heard a leadership professor say to his class, “Think of Ghandi. Think of Martin Luther King. Now think of you – what is your purpose?” Wow. That’s just too much pressure. I wonder if those leaders even imagined as young people how big their impact would be.

There is an easier way to get in touch with what motivates us. I came across it working with people who’d been laid off in the financial crisis. After a grueling few years, clients were telling me that they wanted to regain a sense of meaning at work. They asked me to help them find a job in the non-profit sector. That is not a good idea, I thought. First, I knew that the culture of non-profits is very different from the culture of for-profit companies. As a famous business strategist* said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch,” meaning that wanting it and achieving it are two different things. The second thing I knew is that, if these clients didn’t know what role or function they wanted to fill, they could set themselves up for quick failure. Imagine someone detail-oriented, good at analysis, numbers and operations, and the non-profit whose mission they love puts them in a development job where they wine and dine wealthy donors to raise funds. They will not be happy. They will quickly lose motivation. What working with those clients taught me is that purpose can’t just come from a higher purpose. It comes from what I call it Skill-based Purpose. And guess what, it’s not new. Skill-based Purpose is our strengths, the unique abilities that make us good at one thing more than another.

Too often people look for a career based on industry or company, not on what function would let them contribute the best of themselves. But aligning with roles we are good at is key. And… the things we are naturally good at are tricky. Here’s why: Because they don’t feel like work. What we are best at is often hiding in plain sight. These are the things that lead us to say, “But doesn’t everyone do that?” What’s more is that our Skill-based Purpose is where we have our greatest impact. That means it’s where we contribute the most. Which means that in addition to giving us a sense of purpose, knowing how our strengths contribute to a team or organization provide tremendous confidence and can be leveraged to help us progress as leaders. And most important, Skill-based purpose is like a well that keeps on giving. No matter how much someone uses them, they will always energize and motivate them. The implication is profound. It means that we can find more meaning and success at work, simply by spending more time using our strengths. I wonder if Ghandi and MLK didn’t start out just doing what they were good at. And whether the impact that had opened them to the possibility of their higher purpose.

Where do you begin to discover your own Skill-based Purpose? When I work with individuals and with teams, we always start in the same place — with awareness of their strengths. Any of the well-known tools will help, Myers-Briggs, Strengths Finder 2.0, Social Style. Start there and then ask yourself, or your team, how those strengths show up at work. It’s the connection to our contribution that makes our strengths come alive with purpose.

If you are interested in having a conversation about discovering your purpose, simply click here to schedule a complimentary session with me.

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