According to Gallup, around 70% of American workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work. When you consider that the average American will spend at least one-third of his or her life working, this is a particularly somber statistic.
It begs the question: what if we were able to flip the statistic on its head? What if 70% of Americans became highly engaged at work? More importantly, what would it take?
The power of purpose
There are several factors that contribute to engagement at work, but one of the most powerful drivers of engagement is purpose. According to a study by Imperative, purposeful employees perform better across the board. They are more likely to rise to senior level roles, to be net promoters of their organization, to stay longer, and to have strong relationships with their colleagues.
In other words, cultivating a purposeful workforce not only benefits employees, but it can give employers a competitive advantage as well. Imagine a world where everyone spent the majority of their waking hours working on something that mattered to them. We would have happier employees and more productive companies – the ultimate win-win.
What it will take
Unfortunately, purpose is equally as esoteric as it is powerful. There is no single path to purpose and no single definition that encompasses its many facets. Every individual’s journey is different, depending on personal preferences, passions, and work environment.
Irrespective of the individual, however, there are three broad behavioral shifts that can help create a more engaged global workforce.
1. Lead with WHY.
Taking a cue from Simon Sinek, it may be as simple as asking the right question: why? This applies to both employers and employees. Companies must ask themselves why they exist and find a way to clearly articulate this “why” through a mission statement and a compelling brand (story). This can not only drive more purpose amongst existing employees, but may also enable prospective job candidates to better determine whether they would be a good fit for the job.
At the same time, employees need to spend more time evaluating their own personal motivations. Consider what exactly you want to get out of work, how you define success, and what type of environment might enable you to achieve success on your terms.
According to Cone Communications, 75% of millennials are willing to take a paycut to work for a values-driven company. So when it comes to attracting and retaining purpose-driven talent, leading with “why” might be the most effective HR strategy you can deploy.
2. Take purpose off its pedestal.
Purpose signifies a greater sense of meaning, but how you define what type of work is meaningful to you is entirely personal. Some people find fulfillment from helping others, while others derive meaning from learning something new or working on a project they are particularly passionate about. As a society, we seem to have decided that some “purposes” are more worthy than others, but why should a banker feel any less purposeful than a social worker?
The proof is in the pudding. A study published by the American Psychological Association found that hospital janitors, responsible for some of the most menial and unglamorous of daily tasks, were amongst the most purposeful workers they surveyed.
As long as we rely on society to define what a valid purpose is, rather than the individual, people will continue to be woefully disappointed when they discover that being a doctor or a missionary doesn’t necessarily guarantee a greater sense of fulfillment.
3. Uplevel expectations.
As the lines between work and life continue to blur, we must raise our expectations. This not only applies to our expectations of employers and the culture they create or the benefits they offer, but rather our expectation of work more broadly.
Given the amount of time we dedicate to our profession, there is no reason to settle for being disengaged. In fact, it’s concerning that 90% of Americans seem to have accepted this as a daily reality. Thanks to the growing number of freelance platforms and tools available, you can design pretty much any job (or portfolio of jobs) you desire – as long as you have the passion and the drive to do so.
As a society, we need to move away from the notion that you’re “stuck” with the hand you’ve been dealt. Instead, what if we embraced the concept that inspired the original “American Dream” – the belief that you can design a life you love, as long as you’re willing to work for it?
In conclusion, yes, our society’s current lack of career engagement is cause for concern; but there is reason to be optimistic.As millennials now make up the largest generation in the workforce, “purpose” is becoming an important criteria for evaluating potential job choices.
Given the reality of longer life spans, paired with dwindling financial support from social security, we have to reevaluate career satisfaction for the long haul. And, in order to affect change at scale, we must take responsibility and start leading by example. Whether you’re an employer, employee, or both, consider how your day-to-day actions, conversations, and decisions might help enable these three mindset shifts. By prioritizing purpose, we can help rebuild a more engaged, fulfilled, and productive workforce – we can all win.
I’m the cofounder of Purpose Generation and Purpose Playbook, two companies committed to discovering the “why” behind people and businesses.