The Basic Need for Purpose in Work

The story is told1 that in 1944 Allied forces bombed and destroyed a prison camp factory in Hungary that was distilling human waste into alcohol to help fuel Hitler’s war effort. For the prisoners, mild relief turned to disgust at the thought of rebuilding the camp when the guards forced them to carry the rubble to the far end of the compound. But the next morning, guards told them to move the pile back. This went on day after day, back and forth. Finally, unable to cope with meaningless work any longer, some prisoners began screaming or sobbing uncontrollably and were dragged away and beaten. Others just ran and were killed when they grabbed the electrified fence or were shot.

Meaningful work is a basic human need. Without it, few can long survive mentally. Fyodor Dostoevsky said in The House of the Dead if you wish to utterly crush a man, give him senseless, irrational work.

Meaning – or purpose– is essential in business. Purpose is higher and distinct from mission, vision, and strategy. Consider Google’s original purpose to organize the world’s information and make it accessible and useful. Or how about Southwest Airlines, one of the most successful airlines in history, whose purpose is to make air travel available to the average person? Or consider Johnson & Johnson’s purpose: to alleviate pain and suffering.

The stronger, clearer and more compelling (i.e., higher) the purpose, the more employees will engage, unleash their innovative capacities, and release discretionary effort. Simon Sinek calls it the ‘why’. In his book Start with Why, Sinek says he had become dispassionate and was no longer being fulfilled by his work. But discovering purpose –his ‘why’– “restored my passion to a degree multiple times greater than at any other time in my life”. The book goes on to recount numerous examples of how purpose, providing a compelling ‘why’, inspires and animates great achievements.

With 70% of U.S. workforces disengaged and holding back and trust in leadership at around 15%, it is time to elevate the important responsibility of senior leaders to articulate purpose for their company and the work of their employees. And the higher the purpose, the better. Purpose can provide meaning and engagement where it’s waning. A compelling ‘why’ can ignite passion, inspiration and innovation where it’s lacking. A workforce with that kind of purpose can handle change and accomplish great things.

The ThinkPoints™ transformation model recognizes this crucial factor and therefore starts with Purpose. Does your company have a compelling purpose? Does your transformation –or change– effort start with a compelling ‘Why’? How can you unleash passion, innovation and discretionary effort through the power of purpose? Please share your thoughts.

1.  Colson & Eckerd, Why America Doesn’t Work, Word Publishing, 1991.