This post explores how feeling inspired, energized and focused at work leads to greater productivity, loyalty and performance.
When we do what we do best and enjoy most, it strengthens and sustains us. Purposeful work, however, eludes many of us. The reasons for this – and what we can do to meet our needs for more fulfilling work – are also covered here.
I recently participated in a 3-day leadership programme in London called “Bring Your Unique Work to Life”. The purpose of the programme was to enable participants to come into more direct alignment with their true potential. The session was designed and facilitated by Ed Rowland, a co-founder of The Whole Partnership, a generative leadership and coaching consultancy based in the UK.
When I heard about the programme’s “whole self, whole systems” approach, I was intrigued. Ed is a co-pioneer and master of “systemic constellations”, which is an emerging field in leadership and organisational development. We explored how to find purposeful work in the larger context of our lives, our career trajectory and the work systems in which we are embedded.
“Constellating” an issue involves using different mapping techniques. There is the “desktop” approach, which uses Post-It notes to draw out how the different parts of our lives and work fit together – or don’t. There are also more embodied ways of working such as physically standing in the place of different options to see how they feel. As a result, invisible dynamics, such as what might be holding us back, are revealed. Powerful insights about how to move forwards emerge.
Our need for purposeful work
As the 3 days progressed, I was reminded of a hard-hitting article I’d read earlier in the year called “Why You Hate Work”. Published in the New York Times, the authors Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath highlighted how many of us lack purposeful work and a fulfilling workplace.
A survey by Gallup carried out in 2013 found that only 30% of employees in the US feel engaged at work. This drops to a rather bleak 13% internationally. The vast majority of us find work depleting, dispiriting and overwhelming. With the rise of digital technology and an “always-on” mindset, the situation is getting worse.
In collaboration with the Harvard Business Review, Schwartz and Porath carried out their own research. By surveying nearly 20,000 employees across a range of companies and industries, they found that employees are significantly more satisfied and productive when four core needs are met:
- Physical – having regular opportunities to recharge, such as taking a break every 90 minutes.
- Emotional – feeling valued, appreciated and cared for, particularly by one’s line manager.
- Mental – being able to apply focused energy and decision-making power to the task-in-hand.
- Spiritual – feeling connected to a higher purpose at work and doing what we do best and enjoy most.
“When employees have one need met, compared with none, all of their performance variables improve. The more needs met, the more positive the impact”, conclude the authors. These four needs together fuel productivity, loyalty and performance. They also relate to employee engagement scores, which are positively correlated with corporate performance, as a 2012 meta-analysis by Gallup demonstrated.
What I found most striking, however, was that one of these four factors had a bigger impact than the others. Which one do you think it was – the physical, the mental, the emotional or the spiritual? Employees for whom work was purposeful were three times more likely to stay with their organization than those whose work lacked meaning. The sense of being used for a purpose greater than ourselves makes the biggest difference to our level of engagement.
The challenge of finding meaningful work
It also struck me that whereas Schwartz and Porath made suggestions about how companies could meet more of the physical, mental and emotional needs of their employees, they did not cover how to strengthen the spiritual dimension. This is why the programme I attended with the Whole Partnership was so powerful. It helped participants to find a way forward to more meaningful work.
I believe that there are three core reasons as to why finding work with purpose is so elusive. There are also three corresponding allies that we can draw on, which I also cover below.
Firstly, when we find and follow our heart’s desire, it feels both right and scary all at the same time. As Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! said, “I always did something I was a little ready not to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through these moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.”
I remember in the early days of learning how to facilitate multi-stakeholder dialogue, I felt anxious and excited in equal measure. I also knew deep inside that this was the practice I wanted to master. Time and time again I noticed how, as I waited for the driver to collect me from home to take me to the hotel where my clients were, my heart was thumping strongly in my chest. Over time my nerves subsided a little, but my sense of excitement has stayed. When we see that bringing our unique purpose to life both stretches and strengthens us, we are more likely to take a risk. This might be the very threshold we need to cross next.
Secondly, walking our path involves embracing the new while honouring the past. Stepping into more purposeful work is not about discarding where we have been, even though this may feel tempting. There is a danger, particularly if we feel burnout or overwhelmed, that we turn our backs on a creative impulse we once had – whether to write, to lead or to teach. This may need refreshing rather than rejecting. We might benefit from deconstructing our journey, for example by mapping it, in order to consolidate it.
At the programme last week, one of the participants, who had recently left a 20-year career in investment banking, had exactly this insight. After making a map of her vocational milestones, she saw that she still had a contribution to make to financial services. What energised her now was to explore the complexities of banking through a systemic lens rather than to return to a more conventional role. I believe that the “Divine Economist”, to use M. Scott Peck’s turn of phrase, will make the most of our prior experience, knowledge and capacities while inviting us to upgrade or even reset our skillset.
Finally, dancing to the beat of our own drum requires courage. This may be in support supply if our energy is flagging. The encouragement of other people is key. At last week’s programme it was the conversations with others that crystallised the calling of my heart. Listening for what Ed called “an embodied sense of rightness about your next true move” is best done in the company of others.
Moving to your own rhythm in life is a heroic act but we don’t need to go it alone. It is through re-membering that we are part of a greater whole that we find our place in the world. And it is when we jump to the beat of our life’s calling that our leadership really packs a punch.
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To find about the “Bring Your Unique Work to Life” programme and The Whole Partnership, go to:
To read the article Why You Hate Work in the New York Times, go to: