HR Answers: Help Your Employees Find Purpose at Work

smiling engaged young female employee of Asian descent
By Jane Horan, Ed.D.

4 minutes

Uncovering strengths and aligning them with core values increases engagement.

Does “purpose” matter? For centuries, humans have pondered “meaning and purpose”—what it means to live, and perhaps a bit more recently, to work. In 2019, the organizational musings on purpose have not radically changed from the past. 

Purpose need not be a lofty ideal, nor something to find in retirement. Today, “purpose” is moving up the ranks in leadership research—specifically, the ability to shape teams and businesses with purpose is fundamental. According to Bain & Company, “Purpose should be something actionable we can apply to ourselves and our work.” Simply stated, purpose is a strengths-based approach to work aligned with values and unique capabilities. And yes, it can be measured.

For the past decade, Gallup’s employee engagement surveys have uncovered a visible lack of engagement at work. However, in 2018, engagement scores rose. 34 percent of employees were more enthusiastic and committed to their work and workplace. Over the previous 18 years, the average was 30 percent, fluctuating between 26 percent in 2000 and 34 percent in 2018. That said, it’s important to balance that slight rise with the 53 percent who remain in the “not engaged” category. They show up but are not emotionally connected to the work. Helping employees find their purpose within your organization will help boost those engagement scores. 

Let’s unravel the meaning and dispel some myths about purpose. Purpose is not a cause. It’s not a revelation, nor what you consider when you’ve stored up enough money. Purpose can and does shape leadership, drive organizations, provide a genuine sense of fulfillment. 

  • Boston Consulting Group uncovered “a correlation between purpose and long-term performance. That correlation exists, however, only if a company’s purpose is deeply embedded and not superficial.” 
  • Deloitte’s 2014 research claimed that “82 percent of respondents (executives and employees) who work full-time for an organization with a strong sense of purpose are confident their organization will grow this year.” 
  • A Harvard Business Review global survey sponsored by EY reported “89 percent of executives implied that a strong sense of collective purpose drives employee satisfaction; 84 percent said it can affect an organization’s ability to transform, and 80 percent said it helps increase customer loyalty.”

How can credit unions help employees find purpose? 

It starts and ends with a conversation. For some companies, career conversations remain a perfunctory check-the-box exercise. And for those companies, less than 30 percent of employees feel they’re heard, according to Not being heard demotivates, reduces productivity, retention and hits the bottom line.

However, for other organizations, rather than a cursory review, they will engage in more transformational conversations—forward-looking and purpose-driven. Let me make it clear that any leader, no matter how effective, cannot wave a magic wand and grant “purpose” for others. But business and HR leaders can help employees find purpose through reflective questions and being present.

Rather than asking ‘‘What are your short-term career aspirations?” consider questions that incorporate values and strengths. “What do you believe are your core strengths, and why?” When employees recognize and use all their strengths, they often experience tremendous growth, enormous energy and greater success. By reflecting on strengths, individuals can find their niche and mission within your organization.

Here are a few conversation starters for leaders, managers and HR professionals.

Don’t wait for a formal meeting.

Go for a walk with one of your employees and ask one of the following questions: 

  1. What do you find interesting or energizing about your work?
  2. What have you learned this year?
  3. What are you looking forward to next year?
  4. What do you find difficult or challenging in your work?
  5. Looking back, what has been your greatest achievement?

As you listen, identify a strength and share how it could or has impacted the credit union. Everyone wants to see how their work connects and contributes to the bottom line, the future growth of the organization or the community. Such conversations help employees recognize their strengths and understand when and why they perform at their peak. Sometimes it requires digging deeper, but at a minimum, open a channel and initiate a dialogue. 

Don’t multi-task, be present.

The easiest way to help employees find purpose is to remain curious and listen. When asking the aforementioned questions, listen for enthusiasm and observe gestures. Don’t stop there. Ask questions that encourage the individual to reflect and shift from a short answer to a short story. Ask a couple of follow-ups. Instead of a solutions-focused approach to leadership, adapt a consultative, questioning approach. These conversations enable employees to uncover their strengths and re-ignite purpose. 

At the end of the conversation, ask one final question: “How can I make things better for you?” They’ll tell you. It doesn’t mean it will always happen, but they’ll know their voice is heard. That is the starting point to create greater purpose, which in turn leads to both greater innovation, productivity and engagement.

Jane Horan, Ed.D., is the founder of the Horan Group, a Singapore-based consultancy focusing on inclusion and diversity, cross-cultural leadership and career transitions, which works with multinational organizations on developing inclusive workplaces and with individuals to find purpose at work. Horan is also the author of Now It’s Clear The Career You Own. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter @JaneHoran.

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