What COVID-19 has taught us about the importance of purpose

One year ago this month, the US went into lockdown. Scientists, along with health and government leaders, wrestled with a deadly, unseen enemy that would later course through nation with a vengeance, literally leaving bodies in its wake.

During this time, some businesses adopted remote ways of operating, the fortunate among them becoming agile enough to survive. Others were shuttered, unable to weather the crushing weight of diminished demand for services or the rash of patron-less dining tables.

It was, and continues to be, a time of profound change requiring profound resilience. It’s also a time that has called into question everything we once believed about the future of our lives and work, and our roles within them both.

In the early months of this pandemic, I watched as my clients worked to master the fundamentals of Zoom meetings. At the same time, they struggled to balance life as a virtual employee with children who needed home schooling on the basics of first-grade math.

Each week, someone would reflect on their progress by saying, “Well, I made it through last week. I’m still here. I guess that’s better than the alternative.”

As time went on, however, I noticed an important shift in perspective among individuals at every organizational level. People still wanted to deliver their best work and lead their teams effectively in a pandemic-pressured environment, but their reflections about what they were doing and why came into question. In a number of quiet conversations, clients lamented about the state of the world — the number of lives lost to COVID-19 each day; the challenges of dispersed teams; the state of social issues around the globe; and the growing national discontent and division playing out in the daily news.

In some cases, for the first time, I saw professionals who had managed through tough challenges in the past become frayed from fatigue and weariness in a way like never before. Whether they worked from home or were social distancing in offices, incredibly talented people were beginning to wonder, “Does what I do connect to a higher purpose within me? If these were the last moments of my life, is this how I’d want to spend them?”

I began to realize that I was witnessing the effects of an unprecedented moment in our history. Everyone on the planet was in trauma at the same time, and leaders were being looked to for answers that they didn’t have. We had all come face to face with our own mortality much sooner than we’d expected. These seismic events playing out around the world were causing people to take stock of their life and how they were spending what remained of it.

The leaders who seemed to have fared better during this crisis were those who came to realize that their people were seeking meaning as much as money in reward for their hard work. They wanted to be seen, to be given assignments that aligned with their passions and to be recognized for the heroic efforts sometimes required to just get from one end of the day to the other.

As one client told me, “I have teams in the UK. Nothing has changed there. They are still on lockdown. Things have to be tied to purpose to keep them engaged.”

This point was reinforced recently when I spoke with another client who had been placed in a new diversity, equity and inclusion role for a large multinational firm. She is passionate about social justice and came into the assignment full of ideas and enthusiasm about how to help the organization create a more inclusive culture. Lots of promises were made by leadership about the support her role would receive, including funds to implement the game-changing programs she’d envisioned.

To say she was excited and committed would be an understatement. She was in a role that had purpose which was directly aligned to an individual purpose she felt strongly about achieving.

Things changed some four months into the assignment, as the company experienced challenges with a product launch. The funds promised for DEI were cut from the budget, and she was essentially relegated to becoming a mouthpiece for a cause that had no substantial backing behind it. When I spoke to her shortly after the budget changes were announced, she was a person hardly recognizable from the energetic, determined woman I’d first met.

“I’ve been wading through the quicksand of COVID for months with no relief in sight. When this job opportunity came my way, I thought it was a godsend,” she said. “I would be working just as hard as I had been, but at least my work had purpose because it was a cause I believe in. I’m not sure what to feel now, other than frustrated, deeply disappointed and like I’m wasting my time here.”

Everyone on the planet was in trauma at the same time, and leaders were being looked to for answers that they didn’t have.

As I’ve watched leaders trying to operate in this strange new world, the lessons have been flowing fast, both personal and professional. Among them, purpose has taken center stage, and purpose matters now perhaps more than ever.

There are four important leadership actions your employees need at this stage of the pandemic journey:

1. Relate the work you assign to something the employee finds personally meaningful

The realities of the work environment are requiring that people work harder, often longer and with multiple demands on their time. If the work they are doing can’t be tied to a meaningful purpose, the likelihood of burnout and disengagement skyrockets.

This is not the time to admonish your team to “suck it up a little bit longer” because you can’t predict for certain an end in sight or what it will look like when we get there.

2. Create opportunities to grow and contribute

Create opportunities in alignment with the employee’s desire to do so and in concert with their own sense of purpose. That means taking time to get to know each person on your team on a deeper level.

What are their goals in life? What do they want to learn? How do they want to make a difference? What are their passions and the contributions they can make with them? How do their passions offer diverse perspectives that the team needs for generating great results?

This is not a time to reduce investment in employee development and knowledge growth, especially when remote work can leave people feeling so unseen and undervalued. Recognize that doing this well may require more diligence on your part because teams are not sharing the same workspace. To leverage purpose, lean into the learning — and the listening.

3. Persist in the process

One discussion on purpose is not enough, nor is one internal program to highlight the alignment between the company mission and employee purpose. What’s essential is consistent attention to finding the intersection between what an employee believes in and how that relates to the work they are doing.

Purpose should become a thread that runs through all of your communications with employees and an anchor for your team meetings.

4. Share stories of purpose in action within your organization

Helping employees understand how their work makes a difference to customers and communities strengthens the fulfillment they receive from performing it. I hear such stories every day, even in this difficult time. These are treasures that inspire others to bring their whole selves to work every day — and thrive.

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, March 2021.

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