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Purpose at work
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How Bob Dylan can inspire a purpose-led work life

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The shift towards a more human-centred business approach has highlighted our need for purpose, passion, authenticity and adaptability.

22nd Aug 2022
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Our lives are being buffeted by huge and complex issues. Wars and human displacement, the climate crisis, pandemic and endemic diseases, rising poverty, and social injustice. But amid these challenges, might there also be hope that these events serve as catalysts for change towards a healthier and more sustainable existence? 

We explore this question, taking inspiration from Bob Dylan's lyrical genius.

 “The times they are a-changin”

Over the past decade, there has been a shift towards more human-centred, purposeful business. With more of us working flexibly than ever, our working and personal lives can feel blurred. But when in balance, work can be fulfilling and energising AND our business needs met.

Korn Ferry, in their recent The Future of Work Trends 2022, refers to this year as seeing ‘intentional reinvention’ (rather than reactivity). The report highlights some of those shifts in power that give reason for optimism: from organisations to people; profit to mutual prosperity; from me to we. Around us we see people placing greater value on diversity, authenticity, sustainability and collaboration.

There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the importance of meaning to our health and wellbeing

“And admit that the waters / Around you have grown”

As we seek to understand and build on any positive shifts from the past two and a half years, it may be helpful to reflect on any shifts we have noticed in our own working lives – either individually, or perhaps within team sessions. Being conscious of change, and our response to it, can help us to embed the positives:
 

  • What changes or shifts have you noticed in your working life since 2020? 
     
  • Which feels most important to you in optimising your energy and balance? 

“And keep your eyes wide”

Stopping to reflect on these shifts may prompt some further self-reflection around how you, individually, can flourish and thrive at work. The following four dimensions – purpose, passion, authenticity and adaptability – are useful frameworks, and you can dip in and out of the questions within each section as you wish. 

Purpose

Alise Cortez, in her 2020 book Purpose Ignited, says: “People are motivated at their highest levels when they can connect their work contribution to a greater purpose and mission.”

Psychologists (see Frankl’s work for example) tell us that we find meaning through a sense of purpose; that it helps us make sense of our existence. And, importantly, there is a growing body of research that demonstrates the importance of meaning to our health and wellbeing. Michael Steger’s work provides a helpful summary in this area.
 

  • Take some time to reflect on a time when you felt a connection between your work and a bigger, positive purpose.
     
  • What is your purpose in your working life? Dare to dream about the difference you could make… 

A now old-fashioned characterisation of a leader at work was that of a hero, with apparently superior intellect and infallibility

Passion

If purpose guides us, then passion compels us to act. I like the bold simplicity of Steve Jobs’ words here: “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why even be here?” Given our climate crisis perhaps we can now reframe this around restoring the damage, rather than denting it further. 

Shannan Houde’s Good Work is a pragmatic guide to finding a career that makes a positive difference, and she offers ideas to help us turn our energy and attention into work that has a true impact and also provides an income.

Neil Scotton and Dr Alister Scott, in a book edited by Liz Hall, Coaching in Times of Crisis and Transformation, refer to the concept of Legacy thinking and have a great set of prompts to consider. Placing ourselves in the future, perhaps towards the end of our working life, they suggest asking.

  • What have you stood for?
     
  • How have you affected things?
     
  • What will people say about you? 

Authenticity

A now old-fashioned characterisation of a leader at work was that of a hero, with apparently superior intellect and infallibility. Imbued with masculine energy; dominant, profit-seeking. 

We have seen a welcome shift away from this, towards authenticity and authentic leadership, creating more space for self-awareness and diversity in our workplaces. Research indicates that authentic leadership is a strong predictor of an employee’s job satisfaction, organisational commitment, and workplace happiness. 

The key dimensions of authentic leadership are self-awareness; ‘relational transparency’ (essentially, being genuine and honest); making balanced decisions and integrity. 

  • To what extent do you see these four behaviours in action in your workplace? And in yourself? 

There is clearly a strong theme of self-awareness running through this article. Bill Torbert’s 2005 Harvard Business Review article Seven Transformations of Management identifies and explores different leadership behaviours, including ‘post-conventional’ ones. This framework can be helpful to reflect upon if you have a leadership role, or are curious to explore this space.

Adaptability

This final dimension could equally be titled ‘personal sustainability’. Our lives and our careers are unlikely to take a straight line; we adapt and change based on our experiences. But there is learning to be harnessed, and these final prompts invite you to pause and consider your journey so far. 

  • When did you feel at your best at work - what were you doing; how did you feel?
     
  • What do you need to be able to thrive at work

It’s easy to wander off-route when we’re busy with work, and life, particularly with the events of recent years

“As the present now / Will later be past”

Connecting back to our purpose, or meaning feels important. It’s a way of checking in with ourselves and noticing where we’ve been, and where we’re heading. It’s easy to wander off-route when we’re busy with work, and life, particularly with the events of recent years. The prompts here encourage us to stop and listen to our own wisdom - and then decide what, if anything, we want to do about that. 

With thanks to Bob Dylan for his 1965 lyrical call to action.

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