Want to Accomplish? Then It’s Important to Also Have a Sense of Purpose

By Thomas J. DeLong

When people have a clear sense of purpose, anxiety usually doesn’t get in the way of accomplishment.

We have examples throughout history of groups that have accomplished ambitious goals despite obstacles and setbacks. Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman write eloquently about ordinary people who do extraordinary things by finding direction through purpose.

Remain in jail for 27 years and then lead your country out of apartheid. Cross the plains of the United States in the dead of winter in covered wagons so you can worship God as you wish. Be the first country to land a man on the moon. Bring down a wall that divided a country.

Purpose, therefore, can help high-need-for-achievement professionals clear a path through the anxiety toward achieving their ambitious goals. Achieving purpose, however, can be challenging for people today.

“Why am I doing what I’m doing?”

For one thing, their organizations are not always smart about providing direction, communicating larger company goals, or helping their people find meaningful, satisfying work.

For another thing, the nature of that work is changing, forcing people to question their purpose and causing them to become confused about it; the attorney who relished using his legal skills and knowledge is now being asked to bring in business; the doctor who loved her job is now being challenged by bottom-line-driven administrations on one front and insurance companies on another.

In addition, purpose changes with time, and what was satisfying then might not be satisfying now; the hard-charging business executive who wanted only to make partner finds that being partner isn’t enough and requires a new and more ambitious raison d’être.

It’s possible that you never framed your dissatisfaction with your career or your disappointment in your achievements in terms of purpose. You may have rued bad job choices or changes in your industry or company, but you never formally asked yourself, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?”

This is completely understandable — we tend to be come focused on our here-and-now daily tasks rather than the larger question of purpose. Later in the book, we will focus more on why we fill our agendas with busy work so we don’t have to ask tougher, reflective questions. Yet this larger issue of purpose is always in the back of our minds, especially if we’re high-need-for-achievement professionals.

We want to feel what we do matters. We want to believe that we’re making a difference. If we feel we’re just “doing a job,” it doesn’t matter how well we’re doing it. Without purpose, we allow anxiety to creep in, and that anxiety makes it difficult, if impossible, to find the achievement and satisfaction we seek.

It helps, therefore, to identify if purpose is lacking from your work. I just noted four reasons it might be lacking — organizational failures, changing work environment, changing personal requirements, and lack of self-awareness. Let’s look at each cause, decide whether it applies to you, and learn what you can do about it.

Organizational failures

Many organizations want to give their people a sense of direction and purpose, but scores of obstacles prevent them from doing so.

They may have a program in place designed to communicate to key people throughout the company how and why their work matters, but that program may become lost amid the deadline pressures and occasional crises that crop up. The CEO may espouse the need for employees to understand the significance of their contributions, yet the organization doesn’t reward this behavior, so executives aren’t motivated to help their people find their purpose.

The disconnect between organizational intentions and actions, though, is probably the most significant reason you find yourself without a clear sense of why you’re working (and why you’re working so hard!).

Chris Argyris studied why certain leaders in organizations say one thing and do another. To illustrate that point, he recalled how, during World War II, he led a team at a shipbuilding site in Chicago, and the team threw him a party when he was reassigned to Brooklyn Yards.

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Years later, when he visited his team back on the shores of Lake Michigan, he asked his workers what they really thought of him as a leader. Worker after worker told him that he was terrible, the worst team leader they had had. Arygris asked why they had thrown a party for him when he left. They told him almost in unison that it was because they were thrilled that he was leaving. It was a celebration of sorts.

Over the years Argyris refined a model that highlights the destructive nature of organizations and leaders within them that have what he calls an espoused theory (what the organization purports is its purpose) and the theory in use (what actually happens in the organization, how things get done, how people are really treated, and so forth).

Argyris’ work team noted that he would say that he was open to discuss different work processes, but they didn’t experience him as being open at all. He said he would be supportive of new ideas, but experience told them otherwise. The difference between what we say and how others experience what we do causes pain for employees.

They expect one thing and get another. The greater the dissonance we create, the greater the pain, frustration, and anger that others feel.

Think about whether you’re experiencing a similar disconnect in your workplace between what a leader says and does. If so, your boss or other executives may have communicated the importance of your contributions, but you distrust what they’ve told you because their actions contradict what they’ve communicated.

Struggling with organizational disconnect

For instance, they’ve insisted that your ability to run idea-generating, cross-functional teams is crucial, yet you see others being rewarded with promotions and bigger bonuses for other types of contributions. Why, then, are you breaking your back in keeping this team up and running? Is your purpose valid or is it just window dressing for an organization that wants to say it has this type of team?

If you are struggling with your purpose because of this organizational disconnect, you probably exhibit the following two qualities:

  • Cynicism: You are frequently skeptical when your bosses give you assignments or tell you how important these assignments are to the organization; you tell others that your bosses have hidden agendas when they launch new projects and programs.
  • Lack of identity: You no longer know who you are within the context of your organization; you cannot clearly articulate the role you play and how that role contributes to your group’s and organization’s success; you perceive a disconnect between how you see yourself and how the organization views you.

In these situations, you have a few choices for regaining a clear sense of purpose. Restructure your job so that your tasks and ways of working are more aligned with your own sense of your professional self. You may be able to restructure the job on your own, or you may need to sit down and talk with your boss about it.

Sometimes people add new responsibilities in order to feel more connected to their purpose — by volunteering for a cross-functional team or by loaning themselves out to another group that they feel is doing what they should be doing. In other instances, they need to make more dramatic shifts—transferring to another group, taking a new job, or even going back to school or retraining themselves for a significantly different type of work.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success. Copyright 2011 Thomas J. DeLong.

Thomas J. DeLong is the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice in the Organizational Behavior area at the Harvard Business School. Before joining the Harvard Faculty, DeLong was Chief Development Officer and Managing Director of Morgan Stanley Group, Inc., where he was responsible for the firm’s human capital and focused on issues of organizational strategy and organizational change. Contact him at tdelong@hbs.edu.

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