Do you know your Why? 

Working in a fundraising call centre can be tough work. 

Repetitive calls asking for donations provides little opportunity for autonomy and plenty of rude customers. Performance incentives in this type of environment are often focused on pay increases, promotions and bonuses. The trouble with this is that they do nothing to change the nature of the work or support performance improvement. 

Researcher Dr Adam Grant decided to test a different approach to improving performance with a University fundraising call centre. He arranged a five-minute conversation for the call centre team with a student whose scholarship was funded by their work. The conversation was enough to create a sense of purpose to their otherwise boring and sometimes unenjoyable work and helped them see the potential impact their efforts could have. The result?  The team more than doubled their weekly phone calls and increased weekly revenue by more than 400%.

Discovering your ‘why’ can help turn your work from a drag to a calling. It can help you identify purposeful goals and prioritise personal and professional growth to achieve them. A greater sense of connection and contribution in your work can help you find meaning in small tasks and as a leader, being able to clearly articulate your purpose and beliefs can give others a reason to follow you.

Communicating purpose is an essential skill for leaders in the Future of Work.

A number of recent reports have hi-lighted the desire of Millennials to do meaningful work and they are looking to leaders to provide a clear purpose-driven direction for them to follow. Whilst this may be one key motivator for the Millennial generations, the need for meaning in work is not new. For decades employees have rated a sense of purpose in work as more desirable than promotions, income, job security and flexible hours. A growing body of evidence indicates that meaningful work makes us happier, more motivated, more committed and more satisfied, which in turn, enables us to perform better.

Meaningful work makes us happier, more motivated, more committed and more satisfied,
which in turn, enables us to perform better.

What can leaders do to create more meaningful work for themselves and their teams?

More than 40 years of research suggests that people struggle to find meaning in work when they lack autonomy, variety, challenge, performance feedback, and the chance to work on a whole product or service from start to finish. However, as important as these factors are, there’s one that matters more, and when it’s in place, meaning can be found in the most unlikely jobs.

We all have a deep psychological need to be respected, valued and appreciated. You can tap into this when, instead of thinking of your role in terms of ‘what’ or ‘how’, you understand why your work makes a positive difference to others. Research shows that this perspective can make the most mundane work meaningful.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” 
                                                                                                                                   Mahatma Gandhi.

Often our work does have impact, but we’re too distant from the consumers or end users of products or services to realise. By connecting directly with end users, we can see the past and potential impact of our work. For example, when a patient’s photo was included in an x-ray file for radiologists, they wrote reports that were nearly a third longer and accurate diagnosis increased by 46%.

It’s also important to recognise that some jobs are not designed to have a major impact on others. In these situations, leaders can help by encouraging individuals to take initiative to create meaning in their roles by adding, emphasising, revising, delegating, or minimising tasks and interactions in pursuit of greater meaning – a practice known as job crafting. For example, hospital cleaners who lacked patient contact chose to provide emotional support to patients and their families to increase their sense of purpose, and technology specialists began volunteering for mentoring, teaching, and training roles.

Micheal Steger is a Professor at Colorado State University and an expert on meaning at work. He and his colleagues suggest a three-level model of meaningful work:

  1. Work that feels meaningful and has an identifiable purpose in an organization.
  2. Work that is in harmony with and helps provide meaning in a worker’s personal life.
  3. Work that provides the opportunity to benefit others or some greater good.

Three-level model of meaningful work (Steger, Dik & Duffy, 2012).

Fostering each level of meaningful work will increase and sustain yours and your teams’ spiritual energy. Below are some strategies for yourself and your team that connect with each of the three levels.

For yourself:

  • Simon Sinek suggests that a simple way to uncover your why is to complete this sentence: ‘Almost everything I do is to ______________ so that __________________. You can then use this statement to prioritise what you do and how you do it each day at work. You can find more on this here.
  • Understand how your life values are being supported at and through work. Make a list of the 5 things that are most important in your life – things like family, friends, spirituality, money, career and work/life balance. Then ask yourself how your job is serving those values, so that you understand how what you value in your life is supported and/or met at work can feel more aligned with your job.
  • Think about your job’s purpose and the peoples’ lives that benefit from it. You may not have direct contact with them, but identifying the positive impact of your work can help you see the greater good that comes from your effort.

As a leader: 

  • Clearly communicate the values and mission of the organisation and how they are brought to life in the practices and culture of your team.
  • Show your people how their work benefits others by sharing feedback about the positive impact of their efforts and/or connecting them with end users of your products or services. This will also mean that they can directly experience the impact of their work on others and ask them how their work could be of better service.
  • Provide your team members with a clearly articulated vision of how their work contributes to the organisation’s functioning and be willing to allow some degree of autonomy and personal expressiveness in how each individual fulfils their responsibilities.

Spiritual energy generated through meaningful work is one of the four renewable personal energy sources that can create and sustain high performance for yourself and your teams.

Want to learn more creating and sustaining personal energy?
Click here to find out more about Paige’s Feeling Well and Doing Well at Work program.

Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders leverage their leadership to lead teams that deliver and create culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.