The risks of misaligned purpose at work

I wrote recently about the power of purpose, not only in our working lives but also our personal lives.  A recent study found that when we have purpose in our working lives, not only are we more productive, but we tend to earn more.  What’s more, the happiness in our working life also tends to help us to live longer.

Managers should be careful of manipulating this desire for a meaningful life in order to squeeze higher performances out of people though, as it tends to backfire and result in lower productivity levels.

That’s the finding of a recent study, which examines the range of things managers do to try and tap into our natural motivation and hunt for purpose.  The paper examines things such as investment into organizational values, CSR projects and even highlighting the wider purpose of the organization.

In whose interest?

These things can be noble and beneficial, but if employees suspect that they are primarily self-serving and not genuine, it can not only fall flat, but often have a negative impact on performance and engagement levels.

“Management strategies like this, when executed badly, leave huge numbers of workers who feel compelled to act as if they find their work meaningful, even if they do not,” the authors say.

“This may be for career advancement, the wish to feel good about oneself or the fear of negative outcomes, such as job loss, stigma or career blocking.”

Faking it rarely produces the results that managers hope for however, and often backfire spectacularly as it requires a lot of mental energy from employees to keep up the pretense.

Acting up

The research reveals that employees typically deploy one of two strategies when they sense their employer trying to manipulate their sense of meaning at work.

  1. Surface existential acting, which is when we act broadly in line with what’s expected, even though deep down our values and beliefs are very different
  2. Deep existential acting, which is when the employee tries to alter their sense of purpose to better align themselves with their employer.

    For instance, you might be a nurse who receives purpose from delivering exceptional care to patients, but your employer wants you to rush through as many as you can to meet targets.  Such a person may attempt to alter their values such that seeing as many people as possible is the new goal.

Both approaches can be a cause for concern, for employee and employer alike.

“HR professionals should consider the factors that are likely to give rise to forms of organisational acting, such as reward systems that emphasize ‘fitting in,’ and structures and systems that allow little room for individual choice, voice and discretion, and explore the extent to which these are true of their organizations,” the authors say.

“Ensuring that line managers are appropriately trained and developed to help employees find their work genuinely meaningful should be the cornerpiece of a meaningfulness management strategy.”

It’s a good reminder that values and purpose are not just for Christmas, and are generally not things you can fake.  Check out the video below to see the authors speak about their work.


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