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It's Time For Purposeful Leadership

| February 22, 2022

by Laura McCain Patterson

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Laura Patterson, Leadership Coach and Consultant at MOR Associates.  She previously was CIO at the University of Michigan. Laura may be reached at [email protected].]

More than 19 million workers have left the workplace since April 2021, a record pace disrupting business everywhere. Forty percent of employees said they are at least somewhat likely to quit in the next three to six months.1 Eighteen percent said their intentions range from likely to almost certain. Even among education, where employees have the lowest intent to quit, almost one-third reported being at least somewhat likely to do so.

Higher education leaders who think that employee attrition is easing—or is limited to other industries—are mistaken. The focus has been on successfully managing remote, hybrid and on-premises work options and work-related policies. But until leaders understand their employees and why they are leaving, the attrition will continue or worsen. The pandemic has created a personal awakening. Employees are reevaluating both where they spend their time and how it is spent. Yes, people are seeking more flexibility and better work life balance than existed before the pandemic, but recent research suggests what people most want is meaning and purpose.
Purpose is the belief that you are working toward something larger and more important than yourself. Purpose is believing that what you do has an impact. Leaders should think of purpose in three ways:  individual purpose, purpose from the organization, and purpose from work.2


  • Individual purpose is the meaning people get from something they do for the greater good. Individual purpose may come from hobbies, volunteer work, family, relationships, caring for others, church, or other activities.
  • Organization purpose exists when people believe in the mission of their organization.
  • Purpose from work exists when employees believe they can contribute to the organization’s success.

Nearly two-thirds of employees said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. Seventy percent said their purpose in life was largely defined by their work.2
The leadership challenge is that someone’s purpose can be as varied as people themselves. Leaders must invest the time to get to know their employees to understand what motivates them and brings purpose. Some may seek flexibility to pursue a personal passion.  For others, it may be finding purpose in work.
Employees want organizations where they can contribute, where teammates care about them and their interests, where they feel they belong, and where their work matters. Employees find purpose when their personal values align with organization culture and when interactions with colleagues are meaningful. Leaders can help employees find purpose in their work by building a culture where every voice is heard, everyone can contribute, employees connect with each other, and they see how their work connects to the goals of the organization.
It isn’t only individuals who benefit from purposeful work. Organizations also benefit when employees find their work purposeful. People who live their purpose at work are more productive than people who don’t. They are also healthier, more resilient, and more likely to stay. Moreover, when employees feel that their purpose is aligned with the organization’s purpose, the benefits include stronger employee engagement, heightened loyalty, and a greater willingness to recommend the organization to others.
How might leaders create purpose at work?
Lead with empathy and compassion.  Lead with empathy and compassion by meeting people where they are. Listen carefully to understand the wants and needs of employees and what they are going through as they emerge from the pandemic experience.  Ask employees to help create a workplace where they have the connectivity that enables purposeful, satisfying work and the flexibility for individual purpose activities.
Develop a culture of connection and inclusion. A culture that celebrates the unique differences everyone brings to the team and creates a sense of belonging contributes to a sense of purposeful work. Leaders need to establish group norms for team interaction and create a psychologically safe workplace in which each employee has a voice. Leaders will need to invest the effort to get to know employees on a personal level and help them get to know each other to build a sense of connection and belonging. Schedule time for employees to engage with each other through brown bag lunches, social hours, and other events. And continue the regular employee check ins that many started during the pandemic to keep a finger on the pulse of the climate.
Point to the North Star. Tie each employee’s work, no matter what it is, to the mission.  Help everyone see why their work is important and how it advances the mission. Whether they are testing software updates, maintaining databases, reconciling expenses reports, monitoring network traffic, talking with donors, reviewing applications for admission, responding to calls to the service desk, or emptying wastebaskets, every person’s work is important to helping the university accomplish the mission. Leaders should use every opportunity in conversations to tie the work of individuals and teams to the mission.
Recognize and reward accomplishments. Leaders must measure outcomes and productivity but focusing only on results sends the message to your employees that the work is a transaction, not a purposeful activity. Letting people know that you, and the people above you, value their contributions is important. Small gestures like a personal “thank you”, a shout out at the start of a meeting, or a note from an executive goes a long way toward communicating the value individuals bring to the workplace, which adds to their sense of purpose. Reflect frequently on your team’s accomplishments, large and small, and celebrate them.
Encourage broad engagement.  Engagement in activities outside your team and in the broader university increases purpose. Encourage staff to serve on cross functional teams, task forces and other university activities. Exposure to the broader university community increases the awareness that they are part of something larger than themselves. Encourage them to attend events on campus such as speakers, athletic events, concerts and so on. If possible, allow staff time to assist with student move-in, support a table at new faculty orientation, or contribute to employee onboarding in your department. Perhaps you could arrange for staff to meet with a researcher in their lab to learn about their work and emphasize how the services of your department enable that faculty member to accomplish their work, or you could invite a student panel to speak at an all hands meeting about their experience at the University.
Employees across higher education are reevaluating their relationship with work and seeking work that brings personal satisfaction, purpose, and a sense of belonging. They want purpose in their lives and in their work. Spending time helping employees understand and cultivate their personal purpose at work takes extra effort from leaders, but it will pay off in the long run. Investing time now to ensure that work has meaning will reduce employee turnover, increase employee satisfaction, and contribute to better organization performance. Perhaps the most purposeful work of leaders at this time is giving purpose to the work of those they lead. What could be more satisfying than that?

Further Reading

  1. Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, and Bill Schaninger, “The Great Attrition or the Great Attraction? The Choice is Yours”, McKinsey Quarterly, September 8, 2021.
  2. Naina Dhingra, Andrew Samo, Bill Schaninger, and Matt Schrimper, “Help Your Employees Find Purpose or Watch Them Leave”, Organization Practice, McKinsey & Company, April 2021.
  3. Natalie Baumgartner, “What it Takes to Create a Culture of Belonging in 2021”, Forbes, August 27, 2021.
  4. Robert E Quinn and Anjor Thakor, “Creating a Purpose Driven Organization”, Harvard Business Review, July – August 2018, Vol. 96, Number 4, pp 78-85,