ATD Blog

Purposeful Work By Patrick Howell & Kim Rowe

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ninety-eight percent of us have a deep-seated need to experience work as meaningful. This finding from the Gallup Organization makes perfect intuitive sense. We are wired to seek our role within the grand scheme of things. We want to know that our actions matter. It might be simpler if a paycheck were all it took to foster engagement and a happy workplace. But apparently a purpose-driven life trumps even money.

A sense of meaning and purpose affords more than a connection to high ideals. A purpose-driven culture produces concrete outcomes, including higher profitability, more loyalty, and—according to Gallup—as much as 30 percent less turnover. In addition, Dr. Teresa Amabile from Harvard, and her team of researchers, established that when we view work as meaningful, feelings of joy and excitement are usually close by—a nice byproduct!

How can you experience more meaning at work? Applied positive psychology offers some insight.

Make the mission of your organization the focus

American Screenwriter Joss Whedon said, “Don't give me songs; give me something to sing about!” We all want something to sing about. Yes, we want to do good work and make good products, but we also want to be moved by what our work produces.

Tuning into the mission of your organization is a great place to start gaining a sense of purpose. Some mission statements make it easy. For example: “Get clean water to poor people,” or “We dedicate ourselves to humanity's quest for longer, healthier, happier lives.” Others may require some reflection to truly capture the essence of how the organization’s products and services affect the world in a positive way. In either case, connecting to the purpose or mission of your organization is essential for enhancing your sense of meaning in the workplace.

When setting goals, allow the “why” to resonate


When focused on the reason (or the “why”) you set a goal in the first place, you are more likely to remain diligent, and to stay committed to achieving the goal. It is true that progress is necessary, but if we lose sight of the purpose and become occupied by how much (or little) progress we have made, we can derail our own best intentions.

Dr. Ayelet Fishbach, from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, investigated effective ways to set goals and produce desired results. The research found that dieters are nearly 30 percent more likely to disrupt their successful progress, and subsequently undermine their slim figures, after reflecting on weight loss progress rather than their purpose for dieting. Specifically, when participants were primed to reflect on the progress they had made, they were likely to pick chocolate bars as their parting gift for participating in the study. However, when dieters were primed to reflect on “why” they began a diet in the first place (for example, health issues, longevity, or six-pack abs), they chose apples as their parting gift, leaving the tasty, but fatty, chocolate bar behind.

When working on your next goal, refrain from asking, “How is my progress?” Instead, try reflecting on why you want to progress.

Promote random acts of kindness within the workplace


A random act of kindness is a selfless act performed to either support or cheer up an individual or group. Engaging in random acts of kindness has been demonstrated to lift our moods and add to our sense of purpose and overall well-being. In truth, putting yourself in the service of others can take any form you wish. Here are a few examples that you can adopt and promote.

  • Go above and beyond to assist a co-worker in a project that is important to him.
  • Offer to do the “office close shift” for a colleague who has dinner plans.
  • Call a reassigned co-worker and tell her why you are grateful to have worked with her (this also gets to another positive psychology intervention: expressing gratitude).

Take time for positive mental time travel

While we are neither promoting a culture of daydreamers, nor ignoring the importance of focusing on the present, spending time in positive future forecasting is an important process for staying on track.

If the mention of positive mental time travel (PMTT) has you putting on the brakes, don’t fret. This is not a mystical, abstract concept—we do it quite naturally. Our minds routinely wander and play out every possible scenario. PMTT is about consciously directing this phenomenon by creating a positive mental script for the future. Research indicates that by directing our thoughts to the potential positives of a situation, while simultaneously describing these positive possibilities in detail, we increase our well-being exponentially. Recognizing our negative thoughts and replacing them with positive mental scenarios helps to build resilience and broadens our scope of effectiveness. With a more positive cognitive framework, we leap over obstacles and direct our attention to the things that bring us happiness, satisfaction, and meaning.

For more on the positive workplace, read the full blog series.

About the Author

Patrick Howell combines 15 years of active organizational development experience with extensive research and study of optimal human performance, to help him succeed as Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Human Performance, a collaborative learning initiative offering seminars and certification programs in positive psychology and coaching. Patrick also is President of Team Development Group, a boutique consulting firm he co-founded in 2004 with the clear focus of fostering strength-based, results-driven teams within public and private sector organizations. A leader in the field of organizational development and a recently appointed executive council member to Red Panamericana, an organization promoting Positive Organizational Scholarship throughout the Pan American region, he is considered a pioneer in the Positive Psychology Coaching movement. A former Director of Corporate Initiatives for Dale Carnegie Training, he is no stranger to the facilitation of large and intimate audiences alike. Patrick is the host of Career Corner TV, where he conducts interviews with various business leaders and he is authoring his first book on the topic of optimal performance and applied positive psychology; [email protected].

About the Author

Kim Rowe, one of the founding partners of Agentive, has been an independent marketing and sales consultant to the medical and pharmaceutical industries since 1993. At Agentive, Kim provides clients with marketing and sales performance development expertise, including assessment, training, coaching, and project management. Kim was previously employed in sales, marketing, and training with ConvaTec, a Bristol-Myers Squibb company, and C.R. Bard. She is a board member of the Health Care Businesswomen's Association and an active member of ASTD and the New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners (NJAWBO). Kim speaks regularly on the topic of generational leadership as well as other leadership and management topics. She is on the Board of Directors of the Montgomery Friends of Open Space and was one of the founders of the MFOS Farmers Market in Montgomery Township, New Jersey.

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