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4 ways managers can help employees find purpose in their work

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What do you do when you’re an entrepreneur, pastor, and management and organizations professor?

You write a book about finding purpose in your work. 

Nicholas Pearce, SB ’07, is the author of “The Purpose Path,” a book he hopes will help people in “understanding their life’s work and developing the courage to faithfully commit to doing something about it, today.”

Reevaluating one’s life and work can be scary, not only for the person, but for the manager they work for. Will this reset cause them to be unfocused or unhappy in their work? What if they decide to leave to pursue another path? But Pearce said this self-examination can be an opportunity for managers to set an example of the kind of organizations that turn purpose into profit.

Here are four suggestions from Pearce on what managers can do to encourage purpose in their employees.

Show, don’t tell

When it comes to creating a culture — whether it’s one built around diversity and inclusion, or one that’s open to talking about purpose — leaders need to go first, Pearce said. Through actions, they need to show employees that it’s ok for them to go second.

“You have the opportunity and responsibility to model the values and behaviors that you want other people to enact,” Pearce said. “You can show them better than you can tell them. What a lot of leaders unfortunately are running into — whether related to issues of diversity inclusion, issues of purpose, value-driven leadership — they are talking about their commitment instead of showing it and personally demonstrating it. People pay far more attention to what you show than what you say.”

Pearce said this could come in the form of something like intentionally designing a talent recruitment and interview process to screen not just for “culture fit” but “purpose fit.”Or having formal or informal conversations with an employee about their needs, goals, and aspirations.

“It could also look like a leader's willingness to advance a very talented team member who does great work but has clearly outgrown the role and has shown evidence that they are made for more than their current function,” Pearce said.

Know the difference between management and leadership

Managers are focused on budgets, time, and productivity. Leaders handle the collaboration, enabling of, and integration of people.

“Sometimes that very people-centered work gets messy,” Pearce said. “I’m not suggesting leaders need to become counselors, therapists, or social workers. What I am saying is that leaders have to get comfortable engaging with people in human ways. If leaders are unable or unwilling to deal with that, they are going to find themselves at a considerable disadvantage in the years and decades ahead.”

Have those hard conversations — with yourself and with others

Pearce writes in his book about the concept of “vocational courage,” which means asking yourself if you have a clear vision of your life’s work, and then committing to realign your daily life with that purpose.

“This is oftentimes a difficult conversation, which is why I call it ‘vocational courage,’” Pearce said. “The comfort level with having these hard conversations with ourselves, and dealing with the consequences of those hard conversations, is something I believe leaders everywhere can benefit from.”

Being able to talk with employees about that vocational courage is one of the best things a leader can do, Pearce said. Yes, there is the risk that if you talk with someone about their future and purpose, they might realize their current job is not right for them. But better to work with that person and collaborate as they transition out of their role, than have someone unhappily working at less than 100% just to collect a paycheck.

“A lot of people quit but don’t tell you,” Pearce said. “It’s better to have that conversation with them for their sake, because as a manager there may be a hit to your productivity for a little bit, but as a leader you are showing your love and care for that individual.”

Valuing people as humans has a much higher economic value than treating them as machines. Leaders don’t have to necessarily be touchy-feely about promoting that concept, Pearce said, but the more you encourage engagement, loyalty, and commitment, the more committed and innovative employees will be.

“They’re more careful, they’re more intentional, and ultimately your company is more proactive and more profitable,” Pearce said.

Establish values early on, even in startups

Encouraging a sense of purpose doesn’t just have to happen in established companies.

Pearce said startups are just as important for building a culture of shared values.

While the primary focus of a startup is outcomes, in fact the best time to consider setting good values is at the start of a company, Pearce said.

“Oftentimes the problems that arise in organizations as they try to scale are directly correlated with startup stage issues that were not solved for,” Pearce said. “Having warm bodies but having the wrong bodies is actually worse than growing more slowly and more responsibly and making sure you’re getting the right people who not only have the skills but also have the sense of purpose and values that make us who we are.”

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