There are many items on the global agenda for change. Climate change. Social change. The changing political landscape. Changing energy sources. A change in how we produce our food. A change in how we will work in a future with increasing populations, ageing populations & longevity in rich nations. There’s so much change going on at such a rapid rate, it sometimes feels like we’ve been stuck on an out of control waltzer at the funfair!
We live in volatile uncertain complex and ambiguous times. VUCA. A neat little acronym that’s becoming as familiar as cheese on toast. Many things that we have taken for granted are changing rapidly beneath our feet.
Today for example, in rich countries, people who were born at the turn of the 21st century can confidently expect to reach 100 years old. In Japan predictions say 111 years old. This simple switch to longevity is calling into question the three stage life model to which all developed countries are economically shaped: education, career, retirement. The population explosion and shifts across the planet, the economic model of constant growth on a finite planet where resources are depleting fast, the profound rise in depression, addiction, suicide and stress, the speed of change constantly exponentially accelerated by advancing technology, are all factors that are contributing to a gradual but unspoken fear of ‘not enough’. A deep but unspoken feeling that just behind the calm exterior of ‘business as usual’ that there is anarchy and chaos waiting to break out.
There is not one item on the global agenda for change that can be understood or responded to without the collaboration and cooperation of organisations. More than anywhere else, the world’s direction and future is being created in the context of human organisations and institutions. And yet, inside those organisations we continue to see an ever eroding sense of engagement in the work of their employers.
Purpose with a Capital P + Meaningful Work
To keep up with global agenda for change many of these organisations are now adopting Purpose with a capital P as a key pillar in their future strategies. Perhaps it may be social purpose. Perhaps it may be environmental. Sometimes it’s both. Some – like Unilever – are choosing the UN Sustainable Development Goals as a template and map to guide their path into the future. Others are moving rapidly from sustainability as a strategy, through to a circular economy model, and on towards a fully regenerative model where we put back into the world’s resources more than we take out.
But here’s the thing about Purpose. Purposeful people do well. The purposeful child at school is a teacher’s dream. The child who has a determination to pass their Biology GCSE needs little or no help from a teacher. But what happens when a purposeful person’s purpose is mis-aligned to the school system in which she finds herself? What happens if that purposeful child’s purpose is mis-aligned to his family’s hopes for him?
What happens when a purposeful person’s purpose is mis-aligned to the organisation in which he finds himself?
Purposeful work holds great promise for employee commitment. We know that an organisation is far more likely to win extraordinary contributions from people when they feel they are working toward a goal of extraordinary consequence. A purpose beyond profit, such as contributing to an environmentally sustainable future or towards thriving communities, creates a sense of purpose because the purpose of the organisation is important in itself.
Yet at the same time working towards higher purposes does not always in itself create happy and successful work-places. Many organisations such as schools, NGOs, charities, hospitals have always worked towards goals of high importance. And yet these organisations have far too many unhappy, disengaged, burned-out employees. Simply changing the purpose of the organisation is not enough. Simply integrated social or environmental purpose is not enough.
There’s something else at play here. Something that organisational Purpose alone cannot achieve. Something that we need to understand about the process of working towards a purposeful goal that is as important as the Purpose itself. Something that offers an enormous opportunity to redesign work and organisations to better address the demands of the Purpose revolution and the challenges of the planet.
In A Tight Corner, We KNOW what’s Truly Meaningful
There’s an old saying that disaster brings out the best in people. It causes us to reconnect urgently with what is most meaningful to our sense of humanity. As I began writing this, the indescribably awful events at Grenfell Towers had just taken place. Amidst the pain, sorrow and anger, it brought into sharp focus all the is great, wonderful and truly heroic about human nature. The stories of incredible bravery from residents and firefighters alike. The resolute sense of community to support those made homeless. At a point where people were literally shocked out of their skins, you could see people taking actions that were deeply meaningful to them. You might hear someone say “I just had to come and help”. You saw firefighters and police toiling through the morning and nights to get answers as fast as they could to relatives worried out of their minds. You could see local businesses come together; neighbours open their doors. As with 9/11 you could see people using their creativity and humanity to create walls of supportive messages, decorated with hope, love and resilience.
In the midst of disaster, in the eye of the storm when unexpected horror strikes, we humans do know instinctively what matters to us. What is truly meaningful.
And it turns out that it’s not a wardrobe full of Prada handbags. It’s not a Bentley or a Rolls. It’s not always a bigger house or a more important title. It’s the meaningful things that connect us and make us human. It’s these four things which were so well framed in the work of Marjolein Lips-Wiersma and Lani Morris The Map of Meaning. I have used the Map in many different contexts and find the four quadrants in which they set out how humans find meaning to be very helpful. They are described as:-
- Developing Our Inner Selves: How many times at work have you been put in a position where you have been asked to do something you didn’t feel was right? Fire an employee you know to have young children, a huge mortgage and nothing much to fall back on to meet budget cuts? These are questions of moral development and challenge that are deeply important to us. “Being able to comfortably live in the world having the courage to do what is right rather than what is convenient. Being able to be honest and open, being a good person, not compromising our sense of values too much.” It is also a question of our own personal growth and development: being able to cultivate a culture of constant learning, expanding our horizons, being able to fulfil a role to the best of our ability, focusing on the strengths and learning to accept our limitations. Being true to ourselves is about having the courage to bring our whole selves to work, to be happy with our own uniqueness and able to stick to our own priorities in life.
2. Unity With Other Human Beings: we are hard wired for connection. Being and working in the company of others, overcoming shared obstacles, being combined in some way with others so that one’s own power and resourcefulness are increased. Shares values help people connect, making meaningful work possible. Developing our sense of belonging – long highlighted by Maslow’s work and developed onwards by leading authorities like Richard Barrett of the Barrett Values Centre – is what is activated inside the workplace when you hear “When I look around at the people I work with who have so much commitment and passion, I feel incredibly lucky to be part of a group of people who are making so much difference to the world.”
3. Expressing Our Full Potential: at the heart of expressing our full potential is a deep understanding that we are all unique, and all have unique gifts to share externally with the world. But that we are all responsible for making the most use of those gifts in the world. Of finding some freedom to express what it is that we are good at. We all have deep seated needs to create, achieve and influence our surroundings. If our workplaces allow us to express our gifts and talents, if it allows us to achieve ambitions and be recognised, if they allow us to truly participate inactively shape the future of the organisation rather than simply follow instructions, we find the chance to express our full potential.
4. Service to Others; as we mature and develop, it becomes increasingly important to us to make a contribution to the well-being of others, from helping a single individual to making a wider difference in the world. It can simply be supporting colleagues in hard times, challenging ideas that don’t benefit employees, advocating for the needs of others or speaking out. In the wider context, we want to feel that our life and work have been useful in the larger world, that we are acting with future generations in mind, giving back or empowering the community in some way.
What brings us to a sense of chaos is the tension that we experience between the demands of these key pillars.
It has long been recognised that tensions form part of the basic fabric of our lives. Making sense of this phenomenon is an important part of the process of meaningful living. In order to live a meaningful life we need to pay attention to the whole of our lives because when our lives become fragmented and unbalanced, over time we start to experience life as chaotic and meaningless.
What are the chief culprits here? First we have Being vs Doing. If you’ve ever heard yourself say: “Well yes I know meditation is valuable but I never have time to do it.” or “I wish I could just get time to think about what I’m doing, rather than fire-fighting my ‘to-do’ list” you know the tension of being vs doing. If you find yourself having to take regular retreats to rebalance your stress levels, you know the tension of being vs doing.
The second culprit is Self vs Others. If you’ve ever had to say as one former business leader told me “I got burned out because I was constantly meeting people’s demands; a whole lot of people’s demands and suddenly everything got very bleak and empty. I had no time for myself.” Or if at the end of a busy working day, you’ve fixed the dinner, sorted the kids clothes for tomorrow, listened to your other half’s day at work, cleaned the bath and told a bedtime story and just before you hit the pillow numbed your own wish list with a hefty plug of wine – you know the challenge of self vs others.
And finally there’s the Reality of Circumstances. This one often bites the biggest and most optimistic of visions in the behind! “I want to develop a sustainable village but I’ve no idea where to start.” “I would love to stand up to this bullying culture but I’ve got a mortgage and two kids so I bite my tongue and keep my head down.” It’s also about developing a deep and honest understand of who we are as individuals at any given moment, and sometimes of finding joy in acceptance of our reality rather than dissatisfaction at the reality of our circumstances.
So if we know these things are what make life worthwhile. If we know that these are the things that are meaningful to us, how can we find a way to integrate that into our working day?
Over the last two years I’ve spent time interviewing hundreds of business leaders, startup founders, academics, authors, experts to try to understand what more than Activating Purpose we could do in the workplace to create spaces in which humans are genuinely engaged in the important purposeful work needed to take on the challenges we face.
The most future-fit organisations I found have successfully created cultures, shape and structures which allow individuals to fulfil themselves along each element of what is meaningful to them at any stage of their working lives, and to move seamlessly from one need to another in pursuit of a clear organisational purpose. They are constructed in such a way that what creates meaningful and worthwhile lives can naturally be part of the billions of decisions made by each and every one of its members and leaders. In order to do so, we must rethink the very patterns of human purpose and interaction that constitute the modern organisation.
The kind of companies we desperately need in the future are those which combined being purpose-led (where that equates to taking on at least one of the challenges framed inside the UN SDGs) and those that kind also provide meaningful working experiences for the humans we need to solve those challenges.
If you would like to have a conversation about connecting Social & Environmental Purpose with Meaningful Work in your organisation, take a look at our workshops and training programmes Activating Meaning.