Eileen Dooley is a principal and executive coach in the leadership practice of Odgers Berndtson, global executive search and leadership advisory firm.
When Siobhan Keely, a long-time friend and Vancouver-based yoga teacher, asked me to take part in her online yoga practice, I didn’t expect to have my sense of purpose questioned. But Siobhan wisely observed in her session that many people in the current quarantine were starting to question their purpose amid employment turmoil, prolonged absences from in-person connections with work colleagues and friends, and the general malaise and uncertainty by which we’re surrounded.
A drifting or waning sense of purpose at work, or in life more generally, quickly starts to affect our sense of motivation and hinders action on several fronts. The interesting thing is, a sense of purpose is created entirely by the individual, but can be taken away (or seem to be) through outside forces, leaving us wondering why we are here and what to do about it.
For many, a sense of purpose is often tied to what we do all day, usually our work. When asked the question, “What do you do?” many respond with their job title or function, or a generic role label that others can readily understand, such as sales or accounting. But if you push back a little, like I do in my coaching, and ask, “How does the work you do help give you a sense of purpose?” the answers tend to move toward other factors that go beyond the job itself, or are drawn from our wider lives outside the office.
In my own experience, one’s sense of purpose in a professional work context comes from factors such as our level of belief in what our company or organization does (think health care staff on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, knowing they’re saving lives daily), and from our social connections to our immediate team and others across the organization. You might not get purpose from creating dividends for investors, but you don’t want to let down your colleagues working on a big sales project where you know your contribution is meaningful to the bigger group effort, and you get the recognition for your efforts.
Right now, the work of many has been cut loose from those anchors that help to reinforce our purpose. As much as virtual technologies can connect us during our time of physical distancing, they don’t replace the informal socializing at work that serves to connect us as team members.
If we do get to work in proximity to others, it’s not the same conversation at two metres apart (moose distance, as we like to say in Alberta) than it is next to one another at a meeting table.
Many people, more than will perhaps admit, are struggling to keep busy (or at least appear so) to not only keep their fragile jobs, but also to maintain that work-focused sense of purpose that has been well established in their mind. Even with societal restrictions slowly starting to lift, the jobs are not going back to the way they were in February. Those who were laid off may get a very different version of their job back, or not at all.
Work should feed a purpose, but should not be the purpose itself. So, even in these times where we crave purpose and need it to act as a motivator in our work lives, we consciously need to build a more balanced sense of purpose than one that is overly weighted to our jobs.
When work has been rocked so dramatically, do we cling to an outdated version of what we thought of as purpose, or do we redefine it? Work alone is not a reliable or sufficiently personalized source of purpose. Purpose needs to be fluid as it changes throughout our lives. Make your sense of purpose flexible, meaningful and, most importantly, authentic.
Move purpose away from work and focus it on the simple elements in life that give true pleasure and meaning. Purpose should elicit feelings of gratitude, selflessness, and overall appreciation of your surroundings and accomplishments.
Future pandemics (yes, there will be more) will not then so quickly erode our sense of purpose, as it is not linked as tightly to work as a primary source of defining who we are.