Creating strong links to an individual purpose
benefits individuals and companies alike—and could
be vital in managing the postpandemic uncertainties
that lie ahead.
by Naina Dhingra, Jonathan Emmett, Andrew Samo, and Bill Schaninger
In these stressful, surreal times, it’s understandable for CEOs to fixate on urgent
corporate priorities at the expense of more intangible, personal considerations. How
important is getting your people to think about their “purpose in life” right now when
you’re worried about their well-being—not to mention corporate survival?
It’s more important than you think. During times of crisis, individual purpose can be a
guidepost that helps people face up to uncertainties and navigate them better, and thus
mitigate the damaging effects of long-term stress. People who have a strong sense
of purpose tend to be more resilient and exhibit better recovery from negative events.1
Indeed, our research conducted during the pandemic finds that when comparing people
who say they are “living their purpose” at work with those who say they aren’t, the
former report levels of well-being that are five times higher than the latter. Moreover,
those in the former group are four times more likely to report higher engagement levels.2
Purposeful people also live longer and healthier lives. One longitudinal study3 found
that a single standard deviation increase in purpose decreased the risk of dying over
the next decade by 15 percent—a finding that held regardless of the age at which
people identified their purpose. Similarly, the Rush Memory and Aging project, which
1 Stacey M. Schaefer et al., “Purpose in life predicts better emotional recovery from negative stimuli,” PLoS One, Volume 8,
Number 11, 2013, ncbi.nlm.gov.
2 See Jonathan Emmett, Gunnar Schrah, Matt Schrimper, and Alexandra Wood, “COVID-19 and the employee experience: How
leaders can seize the moment,” June 2020, McKinsey.com.
3 See Patrick L. Hill and Nicholas A. Turiano, “Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood,” Psychological Science,
Volume 25, Number 7, pp. 1482–6, May 8, 2014, journals.sagepub.com.
began in 1997, finds that when comparing patients who say they have a sense of
purpose with those who say they don’t, the former are:
• 2.5 times more likely to be free of dementia
• 22 percent less likely to exhibit risk factors for stroke
• 52 percent less likely to have experienced a stroke
And if this wasn’t enough, individual purpose benefits organizations, too. Purpose can
be an important contributor to employee experience, which in turn is linked to higher
levels of employee engagement, stronger organizational commitment, and increased
feelings of well-being. People who find their individual purpose congruent with their
jobs tend to get more meaning from their roles, making them more productive and more
likely to outperform their peers. Our own research finds a positive correlation between
the purposefulness of employees and their company’s EBITDA4 margin.
Against this backdrop, CEOs and other senior executives should pay more attention to
individual purpose as companies return to operations and begin feeling their way into
the subsequent phases of the “next normal.”
It’s a sure bet your employees will be doing just that. People seek psychological
fulfillment from work, and, as the crisis recedes and companies ramp up new ways of
working, some people will experience friction, and even dissonance, around issues of
purpose. Workplace interactions that felt meaningful and energizing face-to-face, for
example, may feel much less so over a video call. Meanwhile, other employees will be
looking to see if their companies’ actions during the crisis matched their companies’
high-minded words beforehand—and basing their career plans on the answer. And at
companies where employees excelled during the crisis, business leaders will want to
find ways to recapture, and sustain, the sense of organizational energy, urgency, and
speed—without the accompanying fear and stress.
In this article, we explore the organization’s role in individual purpose by highlighting
results from an ongoing research project into the intersection of organizational
purpose and individual purpose, and examine how the two interact and fuel each other
through the medium of the employee experience. Along the way, we highlight ways that
companies can help employees find or articulate their purpose, explore how it applies to
their working life, and seek to make purpose a tangible part of people’s jobs. Finally, we
hope to provide an occasion for deeper introspection on the parts of CEOs and other
leaders themselves. After all, if we don’t reflect on life’s direction and meaning when life
as we know it feels so threatened, when will we?
Individual purpose can be thought of as an overarching sense of what matters in our
lives, and we experience purposefulness when we strive or work toward something
4 Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization.
personally meaningful or valued. Research shows that most people say they have a
purpose when asked, although it’s often difficult for them to identify or articulate.
Yet even when a person’s purpose is clear, it can intersect with an organization’s
purpose in counterintuitive ways. Consider Alice, Maya, and Peter—fictitious composites
drawn from our experience. All three work for a global healthcare organization with a
strong, well-communicated purpose: to transform the lives of patients and their families
by developing lifesaving therapies. This is music to Alice’s ears—she sees her purpose
as alleviating the suffering experienced by people living with chronic diseases; the
company’s purpose is a big part of why she joined. Maya appreciates the company’s
purpose, but it’s much less inspiring for her than it is for Alice. Maya feels a deeper
sense of meaning from taking care of her family and supporting it financially. Peter,
meanwhile, clearly sees his purpose as caring for others and alleviating their suffering.
Yet unlike Alice, who loves her job because of how well it aligns with her purpose, Peter
is saving his paychecks and counting the months until he can quit and begin nursing
school, where he expects to start truly living his purpose.
As these examples suggest, what people need from work and what drives them
personally can be complicated. Sometimes an individual’s purpose aligns perfectly
with organizational purpose, as with Alice. But other times it’s only a partial match, as
with Maya and Peter. And for still other employees, it may be a poor match or none at
all.5 As CEO, part of your job as organizational architect is to ensure that these two
different forms of purpose—organizational and individual—are connected and mutually
reinforcing, and are ultimately a consideration in everything from hiring, feedback and
incentives, and learning to matching individuals to jobs they will find most fulfilling.
Before you can do any of that, however, you need to help your employees better
understand their own purpose and how it operates, starting with the general types that
help describe and characterize it. And don’t forget: this applies to you, too. The more
purposeful, open, and empathetic the leader, the more likely that he or she can instill the
trust necessary to encourage people to leave their comfort zones and explore how their
purpose might be better met at work.
What we measured
Human values are an important factor when defining individual purpose, as they help
people determine what is personally important to pursue in life and work. Therefore,
to better understand how people think about and experience purpose, we developed
a survey to map the type and intensity of a range of universally held human values
including tradition, security, power, and achievement, among others.6
Subsequent statistical analysis of the survey responses highlighted nine common ways
that people orient themselves toward purpose (see sidebar “Nine types of purpose”).
While an individual’s purpose may hew quite closely to one of these nine types (Exhibit 1),
5 To learn more about designing work to be more meaningful, see Dan Cable and Freek Vermeulen, “Making work meaningful: A
leader’s guide,” McKinsey Quarterly, October 2018, McKinsey.com.
6 Our survey was adapted from the academic work of Shalom Schwartz, whose theory of basic human values identifies ten
values that subsequent research has demonstrated are universally recognized across cultures. For more, see Shalom
Schwartz, “An overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values,” Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, Volume 2,
Number 1, scholarworks.gvsu.edu.
it may instead arise from combinations of them, with the relative emphasis and priority
of elements varying from person to person. Exhibits 2, 3, and 4 show three such
patterns (or purpose archetypes) that arose from our research.
Academic research and our own experience tell us that an individual’s sense of purpose
isn’t fixed or static—it can be clarified, strengthened, and, for some, may serve as a
lifelong aspiration, or North Star. And, while what people find meaningful tends to
evolve over long timeframes, it can shift relatively quickly, particularly in response to
the kinds of life-changing events that many people are experiencing now as a result of
the pandemic, or the more recent racial-justice protests. A leader previously fueled by
personal achievement, for example, might emerge from the trauma of these times more
motivated by issues of equality or by contributing to community. Or a leader formerly
motivated by freedom and independence might find the tug of stability meaningful.
What to do about it
The pandemic has been a cruel reminder for companies everywhere of how important
it is to never take healthy or motivated employees for granted. Since individual purpose
directly affects both health and motivation, forward-looking companies will be focusing on
purpose as part of a broader effort to ensure that talent is given the primacy it deserves.
We surveyed 509 people representing a range of personal demographics (gender, age, ethnicity,
and education) and occupational characteristics (industry, sector, and role). We asked them
about the type and intensity of their life values by having them rate the importance of a series of
statements, each related to a value that academic research has found to be universal. Statistical
analysis of the results showed that respondents’ life values clustered in one of nine categories.
Taken together, our results suggest that an individual’s purpose maps to one of the nine—or is
formed by combinations of them.
The nine types of purpose, and examples of their characteristics, are as follows:
Nine types of purpose
While it may be early days in understanding precisely how an individual’s purpose
connects to what he or she wants and needs from work—or how these tie to an
organization’s purpose—now is the time to start figuring it out. Start by simply discussing
these matters with your team openly, honestly, and thoughtfully. By treating this as
the beginning of an ongoing conversation about purpose, meaning, and what your
employees want from work, you can help people better identify and articulate their
purpose, and even start finding ways to help them live it more fully at work—an outcome
that will benefit everyone.
Simply talking about the pressures can help heighten your colleagues’ sense of purpose
at work, as will encouraging your team to step back from the immediacy of the crisis to
focus on the bigger picture and what matters to them.
One effective way to do this is through periodic, guided conversations with your direct
reports. Don’t think of these as project check-ins, or even as purpose check-ins, but
rather as empathetic check-ins—a chance to understand how employees are doing and
learn how you can support what they need. Have your company’s managers make these
meetings a recurring part of how they lead as well.
Exhibit 3 of 4
Archetype 3: The caregiver
Higher importance Lower importance
Primary type: Secondary type:
Being able to help others or mentor
A work–life balance that provides
opportunities to respond to the needs
of family and friends
A sense of security and order
Being pulled away from family and
friends or isolated from colleagues
Uncertainty, or lack of an orderly path
‘Caregivers’ nd meaning in choosing how and when they care for others;
they care less about material gain or what others think of them.
Exhibit 4 of 4
Achievement Conservation Caring
Freedom Respect Tradition
Enjoyment Stability Equality +
Make personal reflection a business priority
By creating a space for honest discussions about purpose—including your own—your
team will hopefully be more willing to explore the topic for themselves. A “purpose audit”
can help. Create the time that people need to consider how their work is fitting into
the bigger picture, using the nine types of purpose as a starting point to explore what
elements resonate and why. When people can articulate a purpose, do they feel they are
living it? What barriers prevent them from living it more fully? How—if at all—have recent
events changed the way they think about purpose? One deceptively simple ice-breaking
question that we’ve seen elicit rich conversations is: “When do you feel most alive?”
Sharing purpose with others can build accountability and act as an accelerator that
helps people consider where and how to bring more of their purpose to work. With your
help, the crisis may provide new opportunities for employees to take action in line with
their purpose. It may even motivate you to further explore your own sense of purpose
and see how you could benefit as well (see sidebar “One CEO’s story”).
Help people take action
There are many things leaders can do to help ignite purpose for their colleagues.
For example, one large retailer dedicates time for a regular “purpose pause,” where
teammates are encouraged to celebrate their involvement in local community projects
and to identify new ones to support. The company uses an app to spur connectivity and
increase the odds that good ideas are applauded and shared.
For its part, Zappos created a customer-service line to answer questions and help find
solutions for people dealing with the pandemic. The kicker? Callers need not be Zappos
customers, and the topics can be anything—from food delivery and finding essential
supplies to literally anything on a caller’s mind. To be sure, with business slower and
call volumes down, the hotline gives the company’s customer-service reps something
to do between their regular calls. Yet it also offers reps the chance to help others and
connect with them, which is one way that people can help satisfy the psychological
need for belonging. And research around job design suggests that even simple tasks
are perceived as more meaningful when our psychological needs are satisfied.
As these examples suggest, purpose and meaning can be valuable considerations in
adjusting day-to-day routines or even in designing roles. But even if you’re not ready
to go as far as Zappos, there are other ways to give people license to be purposeful
now. When possible, create opportunities, such as the following, for people to live their
purpose during this time by tailoring projects, support, communication, and coaching to
suit different needs, values, and situations:
• For the up-and-coming leader who views her purpose as freedom to learn, grow, and
experiment, empower her to try new things in service of customers and stakeholders,
keeping projects within guardrails but without multiple layers of oversight. Be sure to
frame any negative outcomes as learning, not failure.
• For a team member who values preserving and upholding tradition, invite him to help
plan important organizational or community rituals (like team events or company days).
Such events create connection and can be critical to build and maintain culture.
One CEO found that articulating his sense of purpose was the first step to becoming a more
observant, empathetic leader. Here’s his take.
“I want the relations I form to be true, to have relevance, depth, meaning. This is a big part of how
I see my purpose. I’m willing to make myself vulnerable and open to connect with people in a
truthful and meaningful way.
“[Since articulating my purpose,] I believe I’m more honest with myself and faster to recognize if
I might be doing something that’s motivated by my own vanity, fear, or pleasure. I know I’m more
open to feedback and criticism. I spend less time talking about weekend or vacation plans and
more time exploring what motivates, frustrates, or scares people—the things that really matter.
I make faster connections with people now—in part, I think—because of this.
“With my team, I do my best to check in emotionally during meetings, and not be afraid to share my
own weaknesses and doubts. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll say so, and I find all of this strengthens
my impact and credibility as a CEO. The idea of being vulnerable in front of a group of people is no
longer something to be ashamed of, but rather a strength. I’m a better listener now.
“Whenever I feel disconnected from my purpose, I get flustered, lose sleep, and generally feel
stressed out. This is a biological signal for me to stop, get back to what matters, and search for
whatever it is that feels untrue so I can make it truthful.”
One CEO’s story
• For colleagues whose purpose is aligned with equality and opportunity for others,
consider connecting them to the forefront of company initiatives and projects where
your organization is helping the communities in which you operate.
Keep in mind that some people view their purpose as caring and providing for those
closest to them—and practically everyone else in your organization will be feeling
anxiety around these issues right now. Be sure to tailor your communication to address
their needs, too, so that this time takes less of a toll on their personal purpose.
Reimagine a purpose-led future
As much as the pandemic is testing your leadership right now, the real test with purpose
starts as the immediate crisis fades and the hard work of reimagining and reforming
your business for a postpandemic world begins. Embedding and activating individual
purpose more thoroughly in the various elements of the employee experience will take
hard work and commitment. While it’s too soon to say what best practice will look like,
it’s safe to say that the more you can connect purpose to the following areas, the more
likely the benefits will build upon one another:
● Recruiting. Explicitly connect the purpose of the organization to the personal
contributions an individual in the role could bring to the company. By backing it up
with real, purpose-rich stories from hiring managers who have seen this in action,
you will increase the odds of attracting people whose purpose fits well with the
organization and the work, and help them be productive sooner.
● Onboarding. Make purpose part of the first conversation with both the manager and
the team to build a shared vocabulary. Start people off right by helping them reflect
on how the work and the organization connect with their own purpose. In fact, applied
research finds that encouraging new employees to focus on expressing personal
values at work allowed them to significantly outperform peers, be more satisfied at
work, and increased retention by more than 30 percent.7
• Feedback and performance management. The value of strengths-based feedback
is well known; purpose is a natural extension that can help connect an individual’s
broader self to their work. Activating purpose during feedback sessions may even
help buffer people against the uncomfortable aspects of receiving negative feedback.
Try starting a performance conversation with a reflection on purpose and how the
work the individual has been doing—as well as their performance—illuminates their
purpose and values.
Other employee journeys present moments for purpose as well. Ask yourself at each
point: How could we make purpose part of this conversation or interaction? What
unexpected benefits might result? How might the accumulation of these small moments
build a purpose movement in my team and organization?
These are challenging times, and people who are able to draw energy and direction
from a sense of individual purpose will weather them with more resilience, and will
recover better afterward. Companies that embed and activate individual purpose in
the employee experience can benefit as well, including through improved performance.
And, of course, purposeful work and a purposeful life are enduring benefits in and of
themselves—ones that everyone should have the opportunity to seek.
Source : https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/igniting-individual-purpose-in-times-of-crisis