Enliven your people

An adapted extract from 'Powered by Purpose: Energise Your People to do Great Work' by Sarah Rozenthuler (2020, FT Pearson).

Finding work that brings deep satisfaction is one of life’s great challenges. It can take time, persistence and courage to discover it, as well as patience to deal with the inevitable setbacks. The search, however, is truly worth it. When our daily work is connected with our purpose, it feels invigorating. As we willingly serve our beneficiaries, we feel connected with something larger than ourselves and have a felt sense of ‘rightness’ about what we’re doing. 

Discovering our purpose is not, however, a straightforward process. Unless we’ve been very fortunate, most families, schools and organisations don’t show us the way to our North Star. We’re often guided, sometimes goaded, to become what others wanted us to be. Some of us fall into the trap of parroting our parents by copying their career or going into the family business because it feels familiar even though it’s draining. Others unwittingly try to live their parent’s unlived dreams but betray themselves in the process. 

An individual leader finding and following their purpose, operates at two levels. Firstly, a leader needs to be in touch with what is theirs to do. We cannot energise another without being energised ourselves. We cannot engage a team unless we are engaged ourselves. Leadership begins with attending to our own flow of energy; our vitality positively ‘infects’ others more than anything we do. 

Secondly, a leader needs to take others with them across the ‘bridge’ from feeling flat, exhausted or drained to feeling fulfilled at work. I’ve seen more times than I care to remember talented people leave organisations because their leaders didn’t engage and energise them. Whilst leaving might be the right decision, a leader can connect their people with zestful work, which encourages them to stay.  

What brings people alive at work

Recent research, including in neuroscience, informs us what leaders can do to change the widespread lack of engagement at work. In Alive At Work, Dan Cable, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School, argues that disengagement is not a motivational but a biological problem. Our bodies are not built for routine and repetition but exploration, experimentation and learning. Our intrinsic urge to be curious, creative and courageous comes from our ‘seeking system.’ When we learn something novel, develop a skill or have a conversation that brings new meaning, we are rewarded with a jolt of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that encourages us to explore more.[1]

Cable traces the deactivation of our seeking system back to the Industrial Revolution when work started to become bureaucratic and controlled. With the advent of assembly lines through to management by objectives, our ‘fear system’ has become more active, reflected in the feelings of anxiety and apprehension that still characterize many workplaces today. 

There is a substantial body of research that indicates within many organisations there is a strong climate of fear. Employees are afraid of speaking out, losing their jobs and being demoted. Whilst we have moved on from the physical dangers in the workplaces of the Industrial Revolution, in many organisations, these have been substituted with psychological ones. As a result, we keep our heads down and become anxious about the future[2].  

Activating the seeking system is the key to unlocking people’s energy so that work feels engaging. This does not mean that we will always feel happy – there might be times when we feel inconvenienced and uncomfortable – what matters is that we find our work meaningful and stretching. 

The surest sign that we are on our purpose path is that we feel engaged and energised. As our time and talents flow towards something meaningful, it brings joy rather than fleeting happiness. There might be difficult conversations to be had, sacrifices to be made and relationships to be disentangled but on we go, powered by a sense of purpose. 

Why enlivening your people matters

There are three key reasons that it is beneficial for leaders to help their people attune to purpose.

Firstly, purpose-oriented workers are more fulfilled by their work. The Workforce Purpose Index 2016 found that currently 37% of LinkedIn members across the globe (40% in the U.S.) identify themselves as ‘purpose-oriented’ – more motivated by doing work that matters rather than by status or money. Purpose-oriented workers are 50% more likely to be in leadership positions and 50% more likely to be ambassadors for their organization.[3].

Secondly, it is beneficial for our wellbeing. Psychological research shows that people who have a sense of purpose in their work have better life outcomes than those who don’t. A study carried out by researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of South Florida found that academics who found their work meaningful and rewarding had higher levels of work engagement, well-being and job satisfaction than those for whom there was no sense of calling. This pattern of results has been well replicated over various studies spanning the last 20 years. 

Where this study comes into its own is by including a group who experienced a calling but for whom this remained unanswered. These academics reported significantly poorer physical and psychological health than the other two groups. As the authors conclude, ‘Having a calling is only of benefit if it is met, but can be a detriment when it is not compared with having no calling at all.’

In other words, ignoring a calling hurts us.[4].

Finally, research shows that employees want fulfilling work as part of their psychological contract. Leaders play a critical ‘sense making’ role, particularly in periods of change and uncertainty, by helping people to understand what new developments mean for them so that their work is in line with the organisation’s purpose. When leaders lose a focus on this, engagement levels in the teams around them decrease.

Research by Korn Ferry Hay Group has found that in high change environments, leaders often overlook the need to develop the people they lead. They might be too busy, too stressed or too unclear about what the future holds. Leaders who are aware of this pervasive blind spot have a much better chance of addressing it and keeping their people on board by connecting them with their ‘why.’[5]

The desire for fulfilling work

In a hard-hitting article called ‘Why You Hate Work’, the authors highlight how many of us lack purposeful work[6]. They surveyed nearly 20,000 employees across a range of companies and industries and found that employees are significantly more satisfied and productive when four core needs are met:

  • Physical – having regular opportunities to recharge, such as taking a break every 90 minutes.
  • Mental – being able to apply focused energy and decision-making power to the task-in-hand.
  • Emotional – feeling valued, appreciated and cared for, particularly by one’s line manager.
  • Spiritual – feeling connected to a higher purpose at work and doing what we do best and enjoy most.

Whilst all four needs being met fuels productivity, loyalty and performance, one of them had a bigger impact than the others. Employees whose spiritual needs were fulfilled were three times more likely to stay with their organization than those whose work lacked meaning. 

There is, however, a rub. Whereas the authors made suggestions about how to meet more physical, mental and emotional needs, they did not cover how to strengthen the spiritual dimension at work. In our fast-paced, achievement-oriented, materialistic culture, we lack guidance about how to sense our deeper calling. Some ‘how-to’s’ are precisely where we go next.   

Connect your people with your organisation’s beneficiaries

Purpose is about ensuring the long-term wellbeing of your beneficiaries. Research has shown that ‘generativity’ – doing something for the benefit of future generations – is the most common source of meaning.[7] Purpose does not land in our laps; it arises out of living an active and committed life where we want to make the world a better place.   

Rather than follow the conventional U.S. business school approach of ‘learn, earn and return’ to become a purpose-rich person (that many philanthropists have followed), purposeful work is best infused across the course of a whole career[8]. Putting purpose into ‘deep freeze’ by saying that we’ll get to purpose ‘later’ is misguided. Reflecting on who we feel moved to serve and coming into contact with them is energising. Our beneficiaries might be other people, animals or nature; what matters is that we work wholeheartedly. 

Connecting people with their stakeholders creates ‘local meaning’ according to Freek Vermeulen, a colleague of Dan Cable’s at London Business School. Rather than leaders providing employees with a set of grand words – the typical way that organisational purpose is communicated – it is more effective to help people to observe and, more crucially, feel the direct impact of their work on their beneficiaries. Whereas lofty purpose statements can lead to cynicism, even a short conversation with a recipient who expresses genuine appreciation makes work meaningful. It transmits the message that we don’t have to save a rainforest or do spinal surgery – day-to-day acts make a difference.[9]

Research carried out by Adam Grant on college fundraisers in call centres monitored the number of calls and the revenue generated by three groups of workers over a one-month period. The group who before making a call were taken into a separate room by a manager and read out a one-page letter from a student beneficiary about how their scholarship had made a difference, performed no better than the control group. The performance of the third group, who spent a few minutes in actual conversation with the beneficiary, shot up: they raised 171% more money. Purpose is not an abstract concept; it needs to be felt.[10]

Reflecting on Adam Grant’s research, Dan Cable makes a pertinent observation for leaders. Generating a sense of an organisation’s purpose through direct contact with beneficiaries needs to be authentic. If it is seen as a device for manipulating employees’ feelings, it will backfire. Others have warned against the risks of ‘corporate carrots’ being used to trick people into aligning with an organisation’s purpose[11].  A leader needs to ensure that contact with beneficiaries is sincere; only real emotional connection taps into the power of purpose.  

Connect on purpose

As a leader it is important to create a supportive environment where people can grow. Purpose activates our ‘seeking system’, encouraging us to experiment, but we need to feel safe to explore. Research on highly productive teams at Google over a five year period, Project Aristotle, found that ‘psychological safety’ – team members feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another – was ‘far and away the most important of the five dynamics that set successful teams apart.’ 

Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, who coined the term ‘psychological safety’ highlights how it enables teams to have difficult conversations.[12] Instead of people feeling that they’re walking on eggshells or tiptoeing around the truth, they are willing to admit to making mistakes, ask for help or propose an off-the-wall idea. People trust one another not to ridicule, reject or punish someone for speaking up; they share ideas and do something new to bring purpose to life instead. 

When a leader is able to deepen the understanding between team members of what brings them alive, they will be much better at getting the best from one another. Each person is unique – what engages one individual might be very different from what energises another.

When I coach a leadership team, I encourage each team member to tune into their own sense of purpose using a fun activity, inspired by Dan Cable’s work. I ask people to come up with an alternative job title that reflects their talents, strengths and unique contribution to the team. When the CFO introduces herself as the ‘Queen of the bank’, the CEO as ‘Chief Cheerleader’ and the chairman as ‘Company Conscience Rep’, the atmosphere becomes playful. People quickly and easily get a sense of who they really are and who others are. This connectivity helps to build psychological safety and to open up an authentic dialogue where people feel that they can be themselves without wearing the corporate mask. 

According to Dan Cable, this exercise improves team dynamics because people increase their understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities. This greater role clarity aids decision-making because it reduces ambiguity – a team gets on with the task that it is there to do, with more zest and confidence. It releases joy, creativity and energy. It clicks people into thinking in a different way. Who am I really? What am I about? What is the unique contribution I bring? When people engage with questions in this way, purpose on a personal level really starts to come alive. 

Sarah Rozenthuler
CEO, Founder and Author

Sarah leads a British Psychological Society webinar, 'How to find and follow your purpose during difficult times', on 28 July.

Find more about 'Find and Follow your Purpose' here.

'The Psychologist Guide to Meaning' will be included in a forthcoming issue. 


[1] Cable D., (2018) Alive at Work, Harvard Business Review Press

[2] Keegan, Sheila (2015) The Psychology of Fear in Organizations . Kogan Page. Kindle Edition.

[4] Michele W. Gazica and Paul E. Spector (2015) Journal of Vocational Behavior . Elsevier

[5] Bywater J. and Lewis J. (2019) Leadership: What competencies does it take to remain engaged as a leader in a VUCA world? Assessment and Development Matters. The British Psychological Society

[6] Schwartz T. & Porath C. (2014) Why You Hate Work. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/opinion/sunday/why-you-hate-work.html

[7] Schnell (2011) Individual differences in meaning-making: Considering the variety of sources of meaning, their density and diversity, Personality and Individual Differences 51, 667–673

[8] The Purpose Economy op cit

[9] Vermeulen F. (2019) Companies don’t always need a purpose beyond profit. Harvard Business Review, May 08, 2019

[10] Grant A.M. (2008) The Significance of Task Significance: Job Performance Effects, Relational Mechanisms and Boundary Conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 108-124

[11] Theodore Kenni 11 October 2019) No purpose, no problem published on LinkedIn
[12] Amy C. Edmonson (2012) Teaming: How Organisations Learn, Innovate and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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