To have purpose in one’s work is to achieve what we might coin “workplace actualization”. You may be familiar with Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” where at the top of society’s (arguably) most famous triangle rests the level known as self-actualization. Maslow depicted the hierarchy of needs in 1943 in a paper titled, "A Theory of Human Motivation." maslow4 As a reminder, the model is made up of five hierarchical levels (physiological, safety, belongingness, esteem and self-actualization) and can be thought of as therapeutic orthodoxy for a human’s arrival at creativity, spontaneity, morality and a lack of prejudice. Maslow once stated that business leaders “can set up the conditions so that peak experiences are more likely, or one can perversely set up the conditions so that they are less likely.” His quote is a potential indictment on today’s organization and particularly its leaders who fail to help deliver a purposeful organization and equally important, a purposeful employee mindset. We might argue that far too many leaders and employees remain stuck at the physiological and safety level equivalent of a “workplace hierarchy of needs” framework. Before going further, I would also like to suggest that employees will depict one of three types of workplace mindsets in their roles; job, career or purpose.
  • Job mindset: Performing transactional duties in return for compensation and not much else.
  • Career mindset: Focused on increasing one’s career girth by advancing salary, title, power, team size and/or span of control.
  • Purpose mindset: Passionate, innovative and committed to a meaningful and engaging workplace that serves and benefits all stakeholders.
An individual’s mindset when working, therefore, is the result of whether their personal purpose is in alignment with the organization’s purpose, as well as with the duties required to perform in the role itself. Often a job or career mindset is a result of misalignment between personal, organizational and role purpose. Furthermore, a job or career mindset is the result of a leader failing to demonstrate a duty of care in the employees he ought to be leading. If we plotted the job, career and purpose mindsets against Maslow’s model, we would discover leaders spending far too much time on the physiological and safety levels and spending less time on the top three. This can have detrimental effects to an employee’s chance for purpose at work. Should time at the first two levels be expunged? Absolutely not. Physiological and safety level equivalents of Maslow’s framework inside the workplace consists of such elements as well-being, collegial work setting, fair remuneration, reasonable benefits, properly defined role descriptions, and of course a safe environment. Each of these is important and necessary. Failing to provide these aspects is a failure to deliver a purposeful organization. But in my experience, far too many leaders stop at the physiological and safety levels. This is a potential reason why so many employees are either disengaged or not engaged at work. It is this author’s opinion that it is the very reason far too many employees do not demonstrate purpose in their work. Aaron Hurst is the author of The Purpose Economy, and CEO of Imperative. The firm recently released compelling research that suggests “28% of the 150 million-member U.S. workforce defines the role of work in their lives primarily as a source of personal fulfillment and a way to help others.” In other words, 72% of U.S. based workers do not possess a sense of purpose in their roles at work. “When employees bring purpose to their work,” Aaron said to me, “they have stronger relationships, feel they make a greater impact and they also report that they are more likely to grow as people.” Aaron believes from his research, analysis and writing that these outcomes are all connected to increased quality of life and lifespan. “It isn't enough to get purpose outside of work, we need it in the activity in which we spend the majority of our waking hours,” he suggested. The following diagram illustrates the imbalance that has manifested inside today’s firms. maslow1 For purpose to be achieved in the organization and by its employees, far more time ought to be spent by leaders (and the organization itself) helping its employees develop belongingness, esteem and self-actualization. To achieve purpose in one’s role at work, an employee will ultimately need the backing of her direct supervisor. Therefore, the leader ought to exhibit what I refer to as a “duty of care” for the purpose mindset to manifest in the employee. At its root, a duty of care is the leader’s responsibility to help an employee reach workplace actualization. In the report issued by Imperative, it analyzed workers in several different verticals. One particular vertical caught my eye: retail/wholesale. If you thought 28% was a low number as the average number across all verticals, you are correct. It is. But when you drill down into Imperative’s data, you will discover that the lowest vertical is the retail/wholesale industry. Rather remarkably, there is not much role-based purpose happening in these roles, or for these employees in this vertical. The report indicated that only 16% of employees in the retail/wholesale vertical possess a sense of purpose in their roles--16%! We might argue that a duty of care is close to being non-existent for these employees, and their leaders. Aaron was quick to point out an example. “There are some companies doing amazing work in retail from the likes of Apple to REI to West Elm,” he said. “They encourage relationships at work, help employees have autonomy and really help employees—and push them—to grow as people at work.” He cemented my hypothesis for the duty of care theory by indicating:
“Most retail jobs are designed for robots. They lack autonomy and are highly structured. This makes it less attractive for employees to become purpose-oriented people.”
I believe if leaders were to examine Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and were able to look at it as their “duty” to help employees achieve “workplace actualization”—through the graduation from job or career mindsets to a purpose mindset—there might be more purpose-oriented and engaged employees in today’s workforce. Should retail or wholesale employees be made to feel any less in their roles at work? maslow3 A duty of care is a leader’s responsibility to assist employees with networking, relationship building and introductions to colleagues, partners and customers. When an employee feels as though they ‘belong’ at work, they are far more likely to develop purpose in their work. A duty of care also includes the establishment and enactment of other attributes such as autonomy, trust, being collaborative, relatedness, independence, balance and clarity for esteem and eventual workplace-actualization to be achieved. A duty of care can help unleash an employee’s passion and creativity which then ideally unites them with a greater sense of purpose in their work, perfectly aligned to the newly defined purpose of the organization. I asked Aaron one last question. What would happen if the 28% average figure of purpose-oriented employees were to dramatically increase? “It would fundamentally change the culture and performance of the organization,” was Aaron’s reply. Perhaps one way to begin this level of improvement for both the employee and the organization is for leaders to enact a duty of care. __________ Dan Pontefract's next book, THE PURPOSE EFFECT: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization, will publish May 10, 2016.


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  • Dan is a conference organizer’s ideal speaker. Not only did he inspire and energize our group, but he also masterfully adapted his content so it resonated with the audience and our conference theme. As a bonus, Dan is able to nimbly navigate to adjust to a reduced time slot when other speakers went over time without sacrificing the impact of his session.

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