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How peer coaching helps your employees find purpose

The benefits of a purpose-driven workforce are even stronger in a time of crisis.
By: | May 1, 2020 • 6 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a slew of unprecedented challenges for HR teams: determining which employees are expected to work where and when; ensuring workers have what they need to get their jobs done securely from home; handling layoffs and personnel changes; ensuring healthcare coverage; and much more. One of the biggest and most important is helping workers focus on business-critical tasks even as they’re caring for sick loved ones and ensuring their children get educated via remote schooling.

In offering ideas about how to move forward through these challenges, numerous business leaders are citing the importance of purpose. “It’s always good to let your values and the purpose of your company guide the way,” Verizon CHRO Christy Pambianchi recently told HRE. Michael Stephan, a principal in Deloitte Consulting’s Human Capital practice, emphasized that purpose is “vitally important” and that leaders should link each workday to it. And Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote about his company’s mission, noting that, “It is in times of great disruption and uncertainty that our ability to stay grounded in our sense of purpose and remain true to our identity is of the utmost importance.”

There’s much to be said for this idea. But my research on purpose in the workplace has also shown me that focusing on a company’s purpose is not enough. That’s because every individual has unique psychological drivers of purpose.

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The Purpose Drivers

As a research paper from the University of Pennsylvania put it: “An astounding number of individuals have become concerned with purpose—with the manner in which they can realize their potential to uniquely impact the world.” And most people surveyed said “meaningful work” is one of their most important goals in life.

But all too often, an individual’s sense of purpose isn’t connecting with the purpose of the company. That disconnect can make people feel especially disengaged from their work.

Through our work with more than 200,000 employees at businesses around the world, my team at Imperative has found that, to discover their sense of purpose and connect it to their work, people need to explore three central questions.

First, whom do you wish to impact? Is it primarily an individual, an organization or society? Determining which of these takes precedence is key.

Second, why do you work? Are you driven more by a goal of achieving harmony to create a society of equals, or by a desire to help people realize their individual potential so they can move mountains?

Finally, how do you want to solve challenges? Is it primarily through building strong communities, focusing on empathy for each individual, gathering and providing knowledge, or creating the structures that help people pursue goals?

All these may sound hazy and theoretical. But when these topics of discussion are opened, people dig deep into their own psyches. They determine what ultimately gives them their deepest sense of purpose in work—and they find where it intersects with the purpose of the organization.

Reducing Stress, Spurring Resilience

The more an employee is given an opportunity to find those drivers and organize their work around them, the more productive and satisfied that employee is. “Reflecting on the purpose of one’s work can be a highly rewarding and inspiring exercise that helps to harmonize the purpose of the individual with that of the organization, resulting in greater job satisfaction and quality of work,” a group of researchers reported last year.

The benefits can grow even stronger in a time of crisis.

“Purpose in life predicts both health and longevity suggesting that the ability to find meaning from life’s experiences, especially when confronting life’s challenges, may be a mechanism underlying resilience,” a study found. “Having purpose in life may motivate reframing stressful situations to deal with them more productively, thereby facilitating recovery from stress and trauma.”

One of the most powerful examples I’ve seen of this was the story of Viktor E. Frankl, a psychiatrist and an Auschwitz survivor.

As reported in the Harvard Business Review, Frankl had “realized that, to survive, he had to find some purpose. Frankl did so by imagining himself giving a lecture after the war on the psychology of the concentration camp, to help outsiders understand what he had been through. Although he wasn’t even sure he would survive, Frankl created some concrete goals for himself. In doing so, he succeeded in rising above the sufferings of the moment.”

Of course, what most people are going through now doesn’t compare to the Holocaust. But if Frankl could persevere with the help of finding purpose, others can do the same through various challenges in life.

Peer Support is Key

HR personnel don’t have the time or capacity to help each employee discover and connect with the drivers that give them their greatest sense of purpose. But the good news is that employees can do this very well for each other.

This is where peer coaching comes in. Not to be confused with mentoring, peer coaching is a unique form of structured conversation. Peer coaching is a process of reflection, in which neither party involved is presented as having any sort of expertise.

It’s not up to each person to provide answers for the other. By simply asking each other the right questions and offering thoughtful feedback, peers help each other find their own answers. They help each other discover their own sense of purpose.

In the process, peers also develop stronger relationships with each other, which can be equally transformational. As the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley explains, “positive social relationships are key to resilience.” In fact, “it’s social support that may matter the most.”

Broadening the Purpose Conversation

Last year, the CEO Roundtable—made up of 181 CEOs from many of the largest and best known companies—made waves by issuing a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation. Rather than continuing to stand for “shareholder primacy—that corporations exist principally to serve shareholders,” the group vowed “a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders,” including customers, employees, suppliers and communities as well.

This was a strong step forward. It was also little surprise, since companies that show a loftier purpose than just profits to drive stock values do substantially better than their competitors.

But the announcement also cast even more attention on the already popular topic of corporate purpose—and away from each individual’s need to find his or her own sense of purpose at work.

Several decades after my uncle, Marc Porat, wrote a Stanford dissertation on the Information Economy (some people credit him with coining the term), I wrote a book called The Purpose Economy to explore the changes I saw underway. While the Information Economy was clearly still the dominant driver of our economic engine, it had become obvious to me that a new economy was emerging, one centered on the need for individuals to find purpose in their work and lives.

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The more I dug into it, the more I discovered the search for purpose was driving all sorts of changes—especially at the individual level, as people sought and chose jobs that aligned with their own sense of purpose.

Now, as the world goes through rapid changes during this pandemic, everything I’ve learned makes clear to me that this search for purpose in work will only get stronger. Organizations that help their employees along that journey will stand to reap the benefits.

Aaron Hurst is CEO and co-founder of Imperative and author of The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community Is Changing the World.

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