Emotional Intelligence Part IV: Igniting Purpose

What Is Your Why Existential Question

June 28, 2021 

Whenever I begin working with a new coaching client, there are a series of questions I always ask to kickstart our work together. I start with the basics: Tell me about yourself – what is your background? What has led you to your current role? What are the challenges you are currently facing as a leader? What do you hope to achieve in our time together? These questions open the door for them to talk about their role and their level of satisfaction in it. Often, clients express repeated frustration surrounding certain areas of their work. It may even be a project or skill they excel in, but find tedious and depleting. Identifying these pain points leads me to my next set of questions: What work would you happily do all day even if no one paid you? What do you find yourself doing when you “lose time” – when you look at the clock and suddenly an hour has gone by without you realizing it? When I ask these questions, I’m looking for that sparkle in their eye when they talk about what they love, regardless of extrinsic motivators. I’m looking to find their “why.” 

Your “why” is what gives you purpose. It’s your ignition – the engine that drives you to get up each day and be an active participant in the world. Purpose can be derived from any part of life; however, a majority of us define our sense of purpose by what we do for a living. Since we spend most of our waking hours working in some capacity, it makes sense why we would seek out work as a conduit for our personal “why.” When work and purpose are aligned, the rewards are many. Career transforms into vocation – a way for us to positively impact our lives and those around us. 

While purpose has always played a vital role in individual and company success, it’s no question that living through a pandemic has brought the subject to the forefront of the workforce’s collective consciousness. After a year of navigating enormous upheaval and legitimate life or death situations, people are hyper-aware of what matters most. As such, they are looking for those values and priorities to be reflected in their work. For leaders, this is an opportunity to participate in their employees’ self-reflection and draw the connections between individual and organizational values. Understanding what drives people, to begin with, is the first step. 

As with everything, personal ignitions are complex. Most of us are partially driven by fundamental desires such as stability, status, and a sense of belonging. While these are sometimes referred to as “deficiency needs” – coming from lacking – they are entirely normal and expected. Ideally, these desires eventually make way for loftier “growth needs,” such as innate curiosity or want to connect with and help others. Leaders navigate the manifestation of conscious and subconscious motivators in employees and teams every day. Some ignitions are so common that we can form archetypes of them in our minds. Consider the difference between managing two examples of these archetypes – The Climber and The Safety Net. The Climber is motivated by visible recognition and respect and seeks this out by assigning themselves high-risk, high-reward projects. On the other hand, The Safety Net wants to do consistently good work and feel secure in their role – whether or not it’s the starring role. As a leader, you’re sure to find these ignitions and others working together on your team. Successfully managing them lies in finding the right set of keys. 

Pulling the right levers 

Our last newsletter on emotional intelligence talked about how intentional check-ins between managers and employees yield greater empathy and deeper understanding. From these conversations, leaders can take what they learn and apply it to assigning tasks, organizing projects, and keeping team members motivated and fulfilled. There are a few ways you can work with your employees to discover purpose and bring it to fruition: 

  • Find their superpowers: Just because an employee shows competency in a particular area doesn’t mean they enjoy it. Just because someone can, doesn’t mean they should. A superpower, however, is the intersection of competency and interest. It’s something your employee brings a high level of skill to while also enjoying it. Once you’ve identified this superpower – use it! You’ll bring out the best in your employee and give the larger team or project a superhuman boost. 
  • Get aligned: It can be challenging to find your purpose at work if you don’t feel connected to your organization’s core values or mission. Ask employees to reflect on company mission and values when creating goals for the year. This exercise will help them connect their purpose and that of the organization they serve. 
  • Get personal: Employees want to know how their work makes a difference in the larger picture. Make it a point to communicate praise from clients or customers that they work with often. Show them firsthand the value of their contributions. 
  • Take notes and adjust accordingly: As suggested by Naina Dhingra in a recent Mckinsey article, have your employees reflect on two simple questions every day for a month: When did I feel most alive today? When did I feel most drained? After 30 days, patterns will emerge, and it will be clear which tasks or skills your employee should develop and which you should allocate elsewhere. 

Unlike job responsibilities and company policies, purpose is not something an organization mandates. What people care about most is deeply personal; it stems from a person’s upbringing and unique experience of being in the world. As a leader, one of the most powerful things you can do is to create a safe space for your employees to communicate their needs. From this space of mutual trust, together, you can forge a path towards individual and organizational fulfillment. 

Patricia Carl