Finding Purpose at Work Every Day

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Globalization, innovation, disruption, technological evolution, data explosion—the world of work has forever changed. Combining all these elements is a powerful structural transformation in countries and organizations. These changes will impact us all, and how we'll shift from goods to services—with the rise of robots, algorithmic power to reduce work, and demographic transitions with Millennials moving into leadership and Boomers moving on.

This new way of working involves flexibility, short-term contracts, and an “anytime anywhere” workforce, creating new opportunities for organizations and career navigation. While work has changed, some career planning models still have remnants from the past—micromanaging production and promotions based on tenure. To keep up with changing demographics and employees’ ambitions, organizations are shifting toward individual career ownership and finding purpose at work.

The Deep Shift to Finding Purpose

When we connect the dots to changes today in both organizations and individuals, the notion of finding purpose at work makes a lot of sense. This is hardly a new concept; throughout history, mankind has pondered this quest for purpose—the “What are we here for” question. Aristotle searched for meaning and values, Abraham Maslow had a hierarchy of needs, Viktor Frankl explored the search for meaning in logotherapy, and more recently, Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson have conducted research on what makes life worth living. In recent research, Imperative and New York University found that Millennials, women, and people over 55 are more likely to be purpose-oriented workers. And more importantly, they were more likely to:

  • Be leaders, by 50 percent.
  • Have stronger relationships with co-workers, customers, and clients (and therefore be more collaborative) by 51 percent.
  • Find fulfilment at work, by 64 percent.
  • Possess improved psychological and physical well-being.

For the past eight years, my team and I have interviewed mid-career professionals, business leaders, and managers on career transitions, and found that purpose infiltrated every conversation. We uncovered cross-cultural differences on the definition of purpose. Based on these insights, we’ve started an ongoing dialogue with HR and career advisors on the definition, value, and impact of purpose at work. To help shape and design career conversations, here are a few things to consider:

Start With Pivotal Events
After a pivotal career or life event, employees are more apt to explore purpose and meaningful work. These pivotal events can be positive or negative—stepping into a bigger role, moving to a new division, relocating to another country, or being overlooked for an opportunity. It can also be a return to work after an extended leave for sabbaticals, paternity, maternity, or family leave. At such critical career junctures, employees begin to ask deeply reflective questions on impact, meaning, values, and purpose. While reaching the mid-career point typically triggers such questions, we found that the questions actually start earlier in Asia, particularly in China.


Focus on Strengths
Seligman and Peterson’s research on 24 character strengths and positive emotions provides a foundation for what makes work meaningful. Crafting jobs around strengths drives engagement and increases performance results.

Too often, purpose is confused with finding a cause or a revelation, which is not the same thing. Finding purpose at work is to use one's core strengths and intrinsic motivations. By following this insight, some managers started to ask their teams to craft roles around strengths and what matters most to the organization.


To understand purpose at work is to uncover who, why, and how at work. That is, who you impact, why you do what you do, and how you deliver. Aligning these areas increases fulfilment at work, which leads to increased productivity, innovative ideas, and a greater likelihood of staying.

Career Conversations Are Critical
Here’s where things may come undone. Career conversations are often wrapped around year-end performance discussions. Not only are those different conversations, but a career conversation cannot be an annual talk; it must happen on a regular, ongoing basis. Career conversations should be stand-alone, 10-minute, weekly conversations.

If we look at today's demographics, the Millennials and Generation Z are the most diverse and inclusive generation to be entering the workforce. This is a social media–savvy group, adept at virtual collaboration and comfortable with instant feedback. They will challenge the old way of working and communicating for years to come. Thus, it’s now critical for everyone to move away from lumping performance conversations with career development, and toward uncovering an employee's motivations, strengths, and values. This requires the proper blend of questions and reflexive listening to understand what matters most.

Want to Learn More?

I'm looking forward to sharing our insights from purpose-led research, and taking you on a reflective journey to find purpose at work, every day. Please join my session at the ATD 2018 International ATD 2018 International Conference & Exposition, How to Find a Meaningful Career.

About the Author

Jane Horan, an author, speaker, and leadership expert, is the founder of the Horan Group, a strategic consulting firm helping organizations build inclusive work environments and meaningful careers. Prior to the Horan Group, she held senior Asia Pacific management positions at the Walt Disney Company, CNBC, and Kraft Foods. Jane has an extensive background in cross-cultural leadership and global team development, and is a frequent speaker on transformational women leaders, workplace politics, career transitions, and unconscious bias. She has authored three books: I Wish I’d Known That Earlier in My Career: The Power of Positive Workplace Politics, How Asian Women Lead: Lesson for Global Corporations, and Career Arcs. She holds a doctorate from Bristol University in leadership education.

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