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What is my purpose at work?

The Revelation ConversationThis is the first in a 4-article series that explores each of the Four Questions leaders must ask to reveal the total job role to employees, connect daily work activities to organizational purpose, and inspire the collective pursuit of a common aspirational goal. The act of contemplating and responding to each of the Four Questions is designed to bring job purpose into the light, first for yourself as a leader, and then to help you enlighten your employees. This is how you give them something tangible to see and connect to—and customers something to sense and experience.

Answering these questions for yourself will connect you to your purpose at work and prepares you to confidently address the subject with others. First, the questions help reacquaint you with your organization’s existing mission, vision, or purpose statement(s) as well as its corporate ideals, core values, principles, pillars, or guideposts (companies use a variety of terms to capture the essence of their history, character, and culture). You must be fluent in these corporate ideals if you expect to have any credibility connecting employees’ work activities to the purpose of the job role.

Second, they help you develop your own understanding of how core organizational values can shape behavior, decision-making, and the development of team goals and aspirations.

Third, they help you get your own house in order. You must be able to articulate your own job purpose and model the values, actions, and behaviors that support it before you ask the same of your employees. That is why I first recommend answering these questions for yourself before exploring what the answers might be for any of your employees. It is true that there will be overlap in the responses as they apply to your role and the roles of those whom you supervise, manage, or lead, and with whom you work as peers. And, in some cases, the responses will be identical.

If you work for a large company, chances are you already have an authentic, well-worded mission, vision, or purpose statement, and an articulated set of core values. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. It’s useful to have organizational purpose and values crystalized. Assuming these corporate ideals are credible and relevant, much of the work in answering the questions will have been done for you. Your job, then, is to adapt these corporate-level ideals to your local workplace and make them applicable to your employees’ job roles and work groups. In some cases, the organizational purpose and your (or your employees’) job-specific purpose may even be one and the same.

The disadvantage, however, to having these polished statements and values available as turnkey corporate ideals is that you can fill in those answers without putting a lot of original thought into them. When you must come up with your own answers—for yourself and for your employees—you reinforce the connections between job purpose, core values, purposeful actions and behaviors, and the team’s aspirational goal.

If your company does not have a defined purpose statement and a set of core values teed up, answering the Four Questions will be more time-intensive, but the process may be more rewarding. You will likely need to do more discovery. This may take the form of questioning the founder or long-term employees to learn the company’s history, uncover its origin story, and begin to knit a rich tapestry of its past. You will need to learn about the company’s products, services, triumphs, setbacks, and the decisions that led to them. You will be challenged to do the contemplative thinking required to remove layers of organizational veneer to access what your company stands for beneath the surface. Each of these valuable pieces of information will help lead you to the most meaningful answers to the Four Questions.

The first question is this: What is my purpose at work?

A job role’s purpose should support the overall organizational purpose and be specific to the unique role-based contributions made by the employee or work group. But there is a danger in articulating a job purpose that is overly focused on job functions. In doing so, the aspirational quality of the job role’s purpose is stamped out in favor of a more tactical purpose. You will know that has been done when the job purpose reads more like a bullet point on a job description than an ambitious pursuit. My litmus test to determine the effectiveness of a job purpose is whether it can be quantified. If it can, it’s not ready.

For example, you might want to articulate a hotel housekeeper’s job purpose as “to provide a clean guest room” or a hotel laundry attendant’s job role as “to provide clean towels and bed linens.” Each of these sample job purpose statements is lacking. Both sound like formal job responsibilities and can easily be measured, quantified, and ranked. A hotel’s housekeeping department uses a variety of objective evaluations to assess the cleanliness of a guest room. The same is true of its laundry operations, whose quality is increasingly verified by an independent third-party certification body.

Instead, leaders and managers should ask the question why multiple times to push past the core deliverable (What do we produce and how do we produce it?) to the true purpose of the job role (Why do we produce it?).

Using the hotel housekeeper example, ask a follow-up question, such as, “Why do we provide guests with a clean room?”

The answer might be, “To meet their expectations.” You are now a step closer to the job purpose.

Ask again, “Why do we want to meet guests’ expectations?”

Perhaps, “To increase their intent to recommend our hotel to others.”

And again, “Why do we want to increase their intent to recommend our hotel to others?”

Maybe, “Because the ‘intent to recommend’ question on our customer satisfaction survey is correlated with guest loyalty.”

So, “Why is guest loyalty important?”

And, finally, “Because our loyal guests are responsible for 80-90 percent of the positive word of mouth about our hotel, are less price sensitive, and have higher return and repurchase rates. All of these behaviors contribute to our success.”

By following a similar sequence of questions to get at the deeper, underlying purpose of the housekeeper’s job role, you have now discovered that her purpose is not to provide a clean room. Rather, it is to create a loyal customer.

Now, ask yourself, “How will a housekeeper behave differently if she is made aware that the purpose of her job role, her single highest priority at work, is not merely to provide a clean room (as outlined in her job description and detailed in her supervisor’s inspection form) but to create a loyal customer?”

In addition to cleaning the room, will she

  • check the batteries in the TV remote?
  • verify that the time on the digital clock is correct?
  • ensure that the alarm set by the previous guest has been deactivated?
  • look underneath the bed to make sure there is no evidence of a previous guest?
  • neatly place the bathroom toiletries on a washcloth?
  • take steps to report any maintenance issues that she observes?
  • double-check the room’s thermostat to confirm its setting?
  • leave a personalized note?

These actions and behaviors, and many others, are correlated with increased guest satisfaction, which is correlated with guest loyalty, which is correlated with the above loyalty behaviors (positive word of mouth, less price sensitivity, and higher return and repurchase rates). This is how you begin to make connections between an employee’s job functions (duties and tasks) and the purpose of their job role. It activates job purpose. It makes work compelling and meaningful, and drives people to do their best work.

Create an inspired workforce! Pre-order a copy of The Revelation Conversation: Inspire Greater Employee Engagement by Connecting to Purpose. Available in all formats on May 31, 2022.

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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