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Purposeful Purpose

Why am I doing this? What does this have to do with the rest of my job? If no one did this task, would anyone actually notice?

There are people who have thoughts like these. Sometimes it's occasional, occasionally it's more frequent. The more frequent a person questions the purpose of their duties, the more likely it is that the person can experience burnout.

While I am not attributing the experience of burnout to this individual, I have a colleague who mentioned the disconnect between his day job and managing COVID protocols. If a person is not in healthcare or risk mitigation, it can follow that jumping into this space could feel very disconnected. Does that mean that they shouldn't do it? From my point of view, that depends. There are a lot of variables not limited to qualifications, expertise, and capacity to manage a process.

But more to the point of purpose, many people had to adjust their focus during the pandemic. And, it hasn't gone well for everyone. For example, if a person is expecting to teach 3rd grade students in a traditional classroom setting, is moved to online delivery, then returns to in-person with modifications, they could feel like what they are meant to do, teach children, has been overrun by managing policy and procedure regarding communicable disease mitigation. While it is important, it is not their purpose.

One of my specific shortcomings is related to purpose. I can be very good at getting things accomplished. This is especially true when the task is clearly related to the core of my position and the mission of the organization. When the task does not appear to have meaningful impact on the mission, I have difficulty engaging. It looks something like this:

Energy is really high when the task is critical to the mission and super low when it is farther from the mission.


It just gets worse over time. Both in duration and concentration. That is to say if the task needs to be done regularly so it's always on the horizon, it's a problem. Similarly, if the task needs to be done and it's going to overrun the entire calendar, that too, is a problem.

Just to be crystal clear, this isn't about the type of work that needs to be done. People have different strengths, different skillsets, different ways they get agitated, and different types of duties that make them want to choose salt-infused papercuts over doing the task. The thing that makes me bonkers may be the very thing that gives another person energy. This isn't about good or bad tasks. This is about fit for the person where they find purpose.

One more caveat - At some point everyone will have a job duty that is not their favorite. That's how it goes. But if that "not favorite" starts to overrun the good things either in time or mental bandwidth, then purpose starts to take a backseat to tasks.

I've been there. I've had responsibilities that seemed so far away from the mission that there was very little connection to my time spent and the purpose of my role. One of the responses I received when describing how disengaging the work felt was, "Well, someone's got to do it." I don't disagree, but the task did not feel purposeful. At all. When doing something where the purpose is not meaningful, I have a difficult time finding the silver lining. Mostly what I think is, "I'm doing this instead of something meaningful. It's important, but without impact."

How can leaders help their direct reports enhance purpose?

  1. Discuss responsibilities and how they relate to the mission or the purpose of the role. This is not meant to justify the work, but really discuss, debate, and examine the relationship.

  2. Minimize friction by brainstorming ways to get assistance, delegate, or reassign portions to other people who may see the purpose of the task in their role.

  3. Swap it out if possible. If the "meaningless" task can be reassigned and a new and comparable task can be assigned, this might be a good move if it works for all people involved; job descriptions and organizational charts be damned.

There may be more elegant and creative ways to help an individual find purpose in their role. It may also be necessary for a person to find a new role that better fits their needs to develop their sense of purpose. The primary issue that is without disagreement is that individuals who do not feel that their tasks have purpose will likely feel that they don't have purpose. This is no way to enhance engagement and employee satisfaction (which lead to customer satisfaction).

In any reasonable way possible, approach purpose with purpose. As a leader, do not allow purpose to exist or not; take the initiative and responsibility to understand whether your direct reports feel a sense of purpose. If they do, enhance it where possible. If they do not feel a sense of purpose, dig deep to resolve this in some way. Why?

For the sake of the individual.

For the sake of the organization.

For the sake of your customers.

Help your employees avoid burnout. You may be thanked, you may not. But through building a positive culture, you will absolutely be rewarded.

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