Doing “purpose work” in organizations seems to be all the rage right now. And, again, for the most part, this is a great thing. But something has been bothering me about this, so today I’d like to show you exactly how “purpose work” can fail your organization.

There are two primary ways this happens:

  1. It can make individual purpose feel coerced, and
  2. It can make individual purpose feel like it’s something that can be “figured out.”

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First, it feels invasive and heavy-handed for the organization to tell me that I need my personal purpose to be… ANYTHING. No external source has the right to tell me what MY individual purpose ought to be.

That is MINE.

It’s personal.

It may be THE most personal, deep, intimate, self-ish thing that exists.

Therefore, it not the business of the organizational leaders to dictate what an individual’s purpose needs to be — or even to put an expectation on me that I need to “figure it out.”

That kind of pressure is not only absurd and unfair, it’s also terribly unhelpful in doing the very thing we want.

But this is what happens: we put people in an off-site workshop with “purpose exercises” meant to help them “figure it out.” But humans simply aren’t at our most deep and open-minded and creative under the duress of this kind of social pressure. And wow, do I ever feel pressure if I’m in a room of people who seem to be “figuring it out” when I am struggling. This just pushes me further down my downward spiral of NOT feeling like I can figure anything out.

Instead, what we can and should do is create a psychologically safe space where people can continually unfold and share what they are learning about their personal purpose.

But that is a different adventure entirely, with a completely different set of inquiries attached to it.

For example, if the topic is purpose, the questions are things like:

  • What are you here for?
  • How does that connect to our organization’s purpose?
  • What do you want to do with your life?

(You know… tiny, easy-to-answer questions.)

But if the topic is creating a psychologically safe space for people to experiment and grow and continually learn about their purpose, the questions are entirely different:

  • How do I help everyone have a chance to speak up?
  • How well do I pay attention to the subtle nonverbal cues of others?
  • How do I help ensure everyone’s unique “voice” welcomed and needed?

See how different this feels?

Instead of pressuring people to do something, we focus on what we can do to make it safe and OK for them to do it.

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Second, purpose is something that is better tended to over the course of time — not in a time-bound workshop — because it is something that tends to be uncovered slowly through movement in a direction that feels energizing to us.

It’s ever-unfolding and always emerging. As clear as I may be on my purpose in this moment, it always continues to evolve. ALWAYS. It gets more clear, more high-resolution, the longer I pursue it.

The idea that something like purpose can be “figured out” at all is misleading at best, and flat-out terrifying at worse. These are NOT “tiny, easy-to-answer” questions. They are profound, existential ones, and for leaders to try to contain them to a workshop is actually quite insulting.

Instead, the role of organizational leaders ought to be in service of creating a powerfully magnetic organizational Noble Cause that’s actually worthy of people’s time and attention to figure out if they can align to it — or not. Something that people are compelled by, or not. That people are attracted to, or not.

And both are very good outcomes, by the way; we want people to quickly and easily know if we are the organization where they should work or if they should move on. What’s NOT good is if we have an organizational purpose that isn’t clearly polarizing in this respect.

So, let’s stop wasting our time and energy on beating people up with purpose, and instead focus on creating psychologically safe places to work that have a clearly defined Noble Cause. What do we find when we do this? We find that people are able to learn more about their individual purpose, AND the benefits we are hoping for actually start to arrive in our organization.

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