Meaningfulness, pt 2: Higher Purpose: Buzzword or Basic Need?

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I hope you all had a meaningful week! If you did, it could be because you felt you were working for a higher good. Or, as we shall see, it could be for a number of other reasons. Today’s topic, in our quest to clarify the concept of meaningfulness, is higher purpose.

In popular reports, the terms meaningfulness and purpose tend to be used interchangeably. However, in order to gain some clarity, it is worthwhile distinguishing them. As I mentioned last time, meaningfulness is a much broader concept, defined in research as the amount of signficance that work creates for a person (Ashforth & Pratt, 2003). Meaningfulness is the general sense that work is worthwhile. Purpose is the more specific feeling that your work is gearing towards goals and values that go beyond yourself. Purpose, Rosso et al. (2010) point out, is actually only one of several different ways in which work can be made meaningful (others include self-efficacy, the sense of belonging, and authenticity).

Even though purpose is not the only way of deriving meaning from work, it is certainly a very good way. Thinkers from Dalai Lama to Viktor Frankl have emphasized the innate human need to work towards a purpose, and research has shown that employees who perceive that their work moves them closer to a larger goal perceive work as more meaningful (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009; Davidson & Caddell, 1994). When people feel that their work is contributing to society or one’s community, they derive more meaning from work (Grant, 2008; Wrzesnievski et al., 2003). This sense of meaningfulness, in turn, is quite strongly related to outcomes such as engagement, work adjustment, well-being, and (negatively) exhaustion (Fairlie, 2011).

So we have established that a higher purpose is a good thing. The next question is: Has this higher purpose become more important to employees? Popular discourse is certainly implying it. Millennials, we hear, constitute the most purpose-driven generation yet. They want their work to contribute to society. So what does research has to say on this issue?

First of all, there is very little evidence to suggest that Millennials would be more focused on higher purpose than their older colleagues. So-called altruistic motives – the desire to help others through one’s work – have remained stable for basically the entire post-war period (Cogin, 2012; Hansen & Leuty, 2012; Parry & Urwin, 2011; Wray-Lake et al., 2011). It is quite telling to look at the study of Twenge et al. (2010), for example. They reviewed high school seniors’ ratings of what matters in a job from 1976 through 2006. One of the items asked the seniors to rate the importance of having “a job that is worthwhile to society”. The importance placed on this did not change at all over this period (well, it marginally decreased if we are to be strict).

What has changed in recent years, however, is popular discourse around higher purpose. Not least, the tech- and startup world has fervently proclaimed the importance of higher purpose – even though it is sometimes less than clear what the purpose really is. The way we talk about things tends to create self-fulfilling prophecies, and this case is no exception. Therefore, it is not surprising that Kuron et al. (2015) found that the perception of a socially responsible culture was important in order to attract job candidates – especially those that were straight out of school – but less useful for retaining them. The cynical interpretation of that result is that “higher purpose” has become a marketing tool. The more optimistic one is that it has become a hygiene factor: To even be considered as an employer among young attractive talents, you may have to display what good you are doing for society.

In sum, it would appear that the quest for a higher purpose in work is eternal, rather than increasing. But then why is there such an intense discourse around higher purpose right now? And why does it seem as though it has gotten more important? One probable explanation is that within many knowledge-intensive settings, we have a buyer’s market at the moment. The right talent is in short supply, which means that people with the right education and skills can pick and choose among jobs. Faced with a selection of five attractive opportunities, what do you do? You move up the hierarchy of needs. You do not have to make your choice based on pay or location, so you can afford to make it based on a factor such as higher purpose. Case in point: In a large-scale study performed recently by companies LinkedIn and Imperative, Sweden with its buzzing economy came out as the number-one purpose-driven country. 53 percent of the respondents stated that they work for purpose rather than money or status.

To some extent, then, the discourse of higher purpose might be a product of talent shortage and economic boom. Today’s professionals probably have about the same drive for purpose as yesterday’s, but it becomes more visible because they can afford to focus on it. What happens at a future downturn is yet to be seen. What we can know for sure, however, is that purpose is indeed a powerful way of motivating people, at least when you are sure you can pay the groceries.

 

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/57973238@N03/

 

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