According to a Harris-Kumanu survey conducted in October 2020, only a third of U.S. employees know their company’s purpose. And less than a third feel that they—or their coworkers—share that purpose. Without a sense of shared purpose at work, the survey found, people are not only less engaged at work but also more depressed and anxious.

Right now, under the threat of COVID-19, it might not seem like the time to be talking about purpose. People around the world are facing unprecedented stress and anxiety, unemployment, and loss. But based on our work with organizations, as well as the research we’ve done on well-being and purpose as professors at the University of Michigan, we believe that purpose is particularly relevant in challenging times.

In the midst of the pandemic, we sat down for a conversation about finding purpose in times of uncertainty, hosted by the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. Here is an edited excerpt of our discussion.

Robert E. Quinn, Ph.D. Robert E. Quinn, Ph.D.
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Robert E. Quinn: During the pandemic, many people have lost their jobs and are financially stressed. Essential workers have faced exhaustion and fears for their health. What can purpose mean to us now?

Vic Strecher: There’s probably never a better time to think about your purpose. One of the modern fathers of purpose is Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish physician who became the concentration camp doctor in three concentration camps as a prisoner. He lost his whole family. In going through these camps, he also was an incredible observer.

He observed that the people who were surviving (if they weren’t murdered outright) were the ones who were transcending, who maintained a purpose in their lives—who even, with new prisoners coming in, would say, “Here’s my food. You’re going to need it.” And those people very often ended up surviving and growing after these camp experiences. They experienced what we might call “post-traumatic growth.”

So think about this pandemic time. Buddhists talk about how suffering produces growth. We’re not in a concentration camp, by the way. We should be able to grow from this; we should be able to identify strengths that we didn’t know we had. Hopefully we’ll find new paths to what really matters most in our lives, and what matters most forms the core of building a stronger purpose.

REQ: Do people have time to think about purpose when they’re just focused on basic survival needs?

Vic Strecher, Ph.D. Vic Strecher, Ph.D.

VS: Being in public health, I’ve done a fair amount of work in developing countries. In particular, Africa in the 1980s and early ’90s. A good friend of mine, James Arinaitwe, became an “AIDS orphan” when he was five; both of his parents died.

He was taken care of by his grandmother in Uganda, and they were 300 miles away from Kampala, the capital of Uganda. His grandmother walked him 300 miles to Kampala when he was very young, and knocked on the prime minister’s door—basically the gate where the guards were. His grandmother finally had to go back, but James just stayed there and lived by the gates. They finally opened the doors and he got to meet the prime minister’s wife. She gave him an education. That’s what his grandmother wanted, for him to get an education, and he’s given back by creating Teach for Uganda, which teaches young girls and boys.

I remember asking him, “So what about this idea that purpose in life is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy for people who have everything else?” He laughed and said, “Well, maybe you Westerners think that, but people who have nothing understand that purpose gives you hope. Without purpose, you really have nothing. Purpose helps you think about what you could be. It helps me care about what I care about the most. Without purpose, we have no hope. It is essential for poor people.”

So I would say that purpose is incredibly important to people in all socioeconomic strata. And, by the way, when we look at purpose by income and ethnicity, we see purpose is strong in poor people, we see purpose very strong in different ethnicities. African Americans and Hispanics in the U.S. have stronger purposes than whites, for example. Purpose is important; it gives you hope.

REQ: What are some of the benefits of purpose that are relevant to times of crisis?

VS: Just having a purpose isn’t enough, whether it’s a company or an individual. It’s being purposeful. You start acquiring greater agency, self-efficacy, and consciousness about “what do I care about?” I want to not only figure out what I care about, I want to care about what I care about. And as soon as that happens, this really interesting thing happens. You start becoming less buffeted by the perturbations of stressors like COVID.

From our December 2021 Harris-Kumanu survey of over 1,700 U.S. adults, we found that people with a strong purpose are better able to manage their emotions. They use more effective coping strategies, such as seeing a big picture, finding a silver lining, engaging in family or religious rituals. All of those things come in handy right now. This seems to be at least one reason why purpose is so important to our emotions and our emotional well-being.

I’m fortunate to work with neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania, putting people into a magnetic resonance imager and asking them to think about their purposeful core values: “What do I care about? What’s important? What do I value?”

When they do that, more blood flow goes into this part of the brain called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. This area is associated with executive decision making. It also becomes active when we’re asked, “Who are you? What is your identity?”

And when this part of the brain gets more blood flow, it can govern an ancient part of the brain called the amygdala, which is associated with fear and aggression. So when we think more purposefully, we’re better able to manage that emotional fear and aggression center. When COVID comes, we don’t run to the grocery store, strip the shelves of toilet paper and buy AK-47s, and pull all our money out of the bank. We’re better able to moderate negative emotions.

A company has a prefrontal cortex—an executive decision-making function—as well. It also has a fear component.

REQ: What role do workplace leaders play in creating a sense of purpose in challenging times?

VS: I have always felt that great business leaders are very much like great coaches. The people who survive in coaching understand how to connect everybody on the team to a shared mission. If you had only a third of your players saying, “I don’t know which goal I’m going to,” or “I don’t know what position I’m playing,” or “I don’t think my teammates really care and I would just as soon be playing for the other team,” you would lose all the time, and you wouldn’t be a coach for long.

I think we can learn a lot from coaches. There’s a great book by Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine, and it started with a CEO of a company who is at the bow of his sailboat. A nasty storm was coming right at them and the people on his boat were really nervous. But he was rock steady, and people started simply believing in his confidence.

And we’re going through that storm right now; we’re going through a COVID storm. So the C-suite executives, if they’re not calm, you’re lost. People will follow you if you can clearly convey where you’re going. Then, when the storm’s over, they’ll get out of the boat and say, “Wow, I can sail through anything now.” That’s called post-traumatic growth.

This Q&A is based on a conversation that is part of the Positive Links Speaker Series by the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. The Center is dedicated to building a better world by pioneering the science of thriving organizations.

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