January 21, 2018

Jobs Don’t Give Us Purpose and Meaning, Helping Does

photo for Koch help blog smallFace it, few of us can say that our work has a high degree of purpose and meaning in the greater scheme of things. True purpose and meaning implies a degree of selflessness that few of us can afford when considered against rent, mortgages, college funds, or car payments. It’s one of the unstated frustrations in all the recent surveys that show how unhappy most employees are in their jobs.

That’s why it’s important for companies to provide an extra boost on the purpose and meaning fronts.

Companies Must Make Room for Helping
When you boil purpose and meaning down to their essences, you get helping. We want to feel like we’re contributing not just to our own or our families’ wellbeing but also to something bigger. You see it when a disaster happens – we instinctively rush to the blood bank or (often ill-advisedly) to the scene itself. We become desperate to do something to help.

A quieter sense of desperation follows us to work each day. But we often don’t have the opportunity to get that sense of helping on the job – unless we get a little help from our employers.

A few years ago, I was given the day off from work and walked with about two dozen colleagues into a huge warehouse that was filled with broken boxes. The boxes were filled with medical supplies that had been rejected for a bunch of different reasons, none of which included damage to the actual supplies themselves. We spent the day taping up those boxes and stacking them on pallets and wrapping them up with shrink wrap. They would soon be on their way to Africa, where they were desperately needed.

Helping Beyond the Job Builds Engagement with the Job
Now, I’m not going to tell you that suddenly my life was filled with purpose and meaning. But I did do something to help that I will never forget and got to bond with some colleagues that I had never met before. Kudos to my employer, SAP, which offers programs like “October Days of Service,” as well as a more ambitious program in which employees can work in developing countries for months at a time.

Doing good deeds like that don’t just make me feel good and help build bonds with colleagues; they also bond me more tightly to SAP. I’ve never had an employer offer such programs. All other things being equal, why wouldn’t I now feel more loyalty to SAP? Obviously, there’s a lesson for companies here.

Helping Can Happen on the Job
But we don’t need to help the world to feel like we’re helping. When I was a journalist, I mentored young writers who asked for it. Trouble was, they had to ask for it. I can’t imagine anything worse than mentoring people who don’t feel they need or want it (even if they do). That’s why such programs need a push from above to succeed. Research by my colleague Michael S. Goldberg has found three examples of how companies can do this:

Intergenerational learning. American Express piloted a phased retirement program to allow some older Cobol programmers to work part-time instead of retiring so they could train younger programmers, act as mentors and coaches to younger workers.

Peer recognition, amplified. Macy’s reported higher employee engagement after implementing an in-house portal for retail associates to post stories celebrating peers’ good work. Recognition occurs at store, regional and national levels.

Purpose and public service. IBM offers sabbatical programs for employees to work on pro bono projects in developing countries. Employees get to ply technical and management skills while having a meaningful experience, strengthening bonds with employer. Starbucks paid for its associates to contribute 631,000 community service hours to local neighborhood projects in 30 countries and runs a website with a list its employees can join.

What are you doing to give yourself or your employees a greater sense of purpose in their work? I’d appreciate your thoughts.

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