Job, Career, or Purpose?

Each employee’s sense of purpose varies, as should a leader’s approach to managing them.

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The importance of purpose is a common refrain in the modern workplace and in the popular press. Organizations and their leaders should work diligently to instill a sense of purpose in each one of their employees, we’re told. But the Great Resignation laid bare the fact that many employees simply don’t care about a company’s purpose; they want a stable career or, sometimes, just a job for the time being. Furthermore, some of those employees will never care about their organization’s purpose.

This notion, which is often glossed over in writings on instilling purpose, should give leaders pause. Oft-cited management advice like “If an employee’s motivation is lacking, try to help them understand how their work contributes to our organization’s purpose” must be called into question if the employee does not and will not ever care about the organization’s purpose.

We believe workplaces comprise three types of employees: the job-oriented, the career-oriented, and the purpose-oriented. Just as important as recognizing that not everyone is purpose-oriented is knowing and accepting that it’s OK for employees to not share in the organization’s purpose; they can still make meaningful contributions. This approach requires a massive shift in our thoughts on purpose, because although it is always worth trying to help people buy into an organization’s purpose, it is equally important to understand when they simply want a job or a career.

Coaching Is a Two-Way Street

One consistent trend over the past decade has been a push to train managers to be better coaches. The business rationale is twofold: Coaching enhances employee development and performance, and organizations assume that managers rarely possess the skills necessary to coach subordinates effectively. Consider, however, that maybe leaders are capable of coaching their subordinates, but organizations are asking them to coach their subordinates toward goals that simply don’t resonate with them. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of coaching is not its execution but rather the preparatory work in which leaders engage to try to understand their employees.

Purpose is the “why” behind what makes a person tick and an important consideration when coaching the whole person. But in a society where work is the dominant activity in our lives, a term meant to represent a person’s universal motivations is understood as something exclusively work-related.


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