I was wrong about purpose-filled work

If the reports are to be believed, employee engagement is presently abysmal, and many sources cite a lack of self-actualization and meaning in our workplaces as the culprit. Copious articles have been written about the value of purpose in employees’ work lives, with some indicating younger generations in particular desire to work where they believe their contributions are for more than just a paycheck. (Side note: most agree fair compensation is still considered very important, but purpose and meaning apparently rank higher than they used to, especially with “millenials”.)

Each new publication championing employee happiness through self-selected, meaningful work left me more excited and validated. I felt, “Yes! This is the way it should be! Every employee should be able to feel happy about their work! Everyone should be engaged in their work’s purpose and enthralled with their contribution.”

However, in contrast, reality stared me in the face each day. In the workplaces around me, I saw no significant acceptance of the perspectives espoused by the articles. I witnessed few companies making good on the ideas or even attempting to implement them. For workers I knew, myself included, work was most often still a four-letter word, something to be endured for the paycheck and benefits.

So, I concluded: I was wrong. Fun and enjoyable work is largely a myth — a nearly unattainable fantasy, a luxury only few can afford. I wondered if those touting it were either out-of-touch academics or practitioners filled with confirmation bias because they had been the lucky enough ones to find it. Perhaps their attempt to share the beautiful dream (that everyone’s work could be purposeful) was unintentionally misleading, like those trite speeches by astronauts at career day: “I am space-walking proof that if you just hold onto your dreams, you can do anything you want to!” Thanks, Mr. 1%. So much for the rest of us.

Yes, what all those former teachers and mentors said certainly must be, disappointingly, true after all. Work and play don’t mix. Get meaning and purpose somewhere else. Work is a duty you make yourself do regardless of how you feel, they said. Now, to be fair, I never found anyone attempting to convince me that it’s okay to work for an employer whose practices are abusive or illegal. Upholding moral and ethical integrity in the pursuit of employment was definitely encouraged. But short of that line, I was forewarned that any drudgery or lack of fulfillment should be expected and endured, because at the end of the day, work is really just about the money.

My tale would normally end here, but about the time I was ready to throw in the towel on meaningful work, the light-bulb moment arrived. I was writing an article on how & why employees are motivated to behave in unexpected ways, and while I chose to omit the detailed accounts from the final post (for brevity), I observed a striking trend: most examples of behavioral dichotomies I witnessed during my career revolved around money. Specifically, where monetary incentives were most prevalent, the personal pursuit of financial benefits had often become untethered from organizational and individual purpose. Corporate promotions were pursued for only selfish gain. Salespeople were rewarded for pushing product quantity indiscriminately. And it wasn’t just money; status and power were close behind, somehow always unmoored from purpose.

Decay of employee engagement and organizational health inevitably followed.

The human element in the equation became crystal clear to me: devoid of a deep love of greater purpose, other motives take priority. Tempted by power, status, or greed instead of purpose, it’s only a matter of time before an individual makes decisions that are best for self rather than others, eventually becoming a destabilizing force that undermines the mission of the organization. From salespeople to service reps to division managers to upper executives, I’ve seen personally and in the news these scenarios play out again and again.

I also witnessed the other extreme: mediocrity and apathy. When employees discover they cannot individually make a difference with their work, then their effort will go instead toward insulating themselves from blame and avoiding work itself, to further their personal comfort (or at least maintain status quo.) Their focus will be selfishness. If we want to combat this, we have to give employees purpose in their work, the chance for something greater than selfishness for their personal efforts to achieve.

So, ultimately, I was wrong again, because my starting perspective was too shallow. Purpose-filled work is critically important, not just for individual employee happiness but for the health of the entire organization. The purpose of our work must instead come as a first priority. We can not afford to have companies run merely for maximum financial gain (for external shareholders or internal beneficiaries), because human nature will always find the most selfish and expedient route to that end, often at the expense of employees, consumers, and entire communities.

I’m left pondering what we can do to reverse these trends within our organizations and bring healthy engagement back to the workforce. Can we create greater incentives around collective purpose over self gain? Maybe we could minimize or at least diminish financial incentives to disincent the greedy and make room for those who seek the work purely for its purpose, meaning, and worth to the greater cause. Building on that, perhaps we should focus on promoting to leadership positions those most passionate about the work itself rather than the hungriest for money, power, status, or convenience.

I suspect it will take such a reprioritization to restore employee engagement, because it is never far from those who can feel meaning in their workplace, see the connection to a greater purpose, and work passionately because they believe in it.

If you have ideas on or experience with how to (re)connect purpose with engagement and rebalance what organizations incent, please share them.

For more thoughts on business, technology, culture, and human nature, follow Ben Kobulnicky on Medium & LinkedIn and subscribe to his YouTube channel.