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Grab the Barf Bag, Leadership Is Talking About ‘Purpose’ Again

"the purpose of our lives is to be happy" street art, creepy smiling face guy

With all the AI buzz dominating headlines these days, we almost forgot how much firms enjoy talking about purpose. Allegedly this is something very important to millennials, or it was when we started entering the workforce 20+ years ago but now that we’re old and codgery it’s been pinned on Gen Z. Gen Z doesn’t work for money, they work for purpose. Gen Z doesn’t want work-life balance, they want purpose. Blah blah, we’ve been here before.

But hey, let’s pretend like this is some novel concept in this Forbes piece “What We Want From Work Is Changing — For The Better“:

A staggering 82% of employees believe it’s important for their company to have a purpose — but why does purpose at work matter so much?

Shannon Schuyler, US Chief Purpose and Inclusion Officer at PwC, thinks it has to do with impact. “When you look at the psychology of why individuals find meaning, and why they engage in things that are other than themselves, it’s because they realize they play a larger part.”

In the old days people found this meaning through community, church, or raising a family, now apparently we find it through the money-generating activities of commoditized professional services.

The 82% figure referenced by Forbes comes from a 2022 McKinsey study. You know, McKinsey, that benevolent organization known worldwide for its purpose-driven mission. (That’s a joke.) That study was about how to con people into going back to the office, not about making them feel like work has some sort of meaning:

“Return to office” plans have been making headlines since mid-2020. Whether the prevailing message is hybrid, team-based, or prescriptive, these pronouncements often fail to achieve leaders’ desired results. And when employees are slow to return voluntarily, companies resort to ineffective mandates, exacerbating trends like the Great Attrition.

Employees are leaving because they don’t know why to stay, much less commute.

To address this, and to turn the office into a competitive advantage, executives should focus on making their workplaces matter and measuring their success. They should design and activate offices that foster human connection, and create tailored, authentic experiences with a hospitality mindset. A more valuable, fulfilling work day can clarify the benefits of collocating with colleagues, in turn helping prevent decision fatigue as employees ask, “Do I go into the office tomorrow or not?”

At the bottom there’s a link to learn more about McKinsey’s People & Organizational Performance practice because that is McKinsey’s purpose, generating income for themselves (not that there’s anything wrong with that). So all this is is corporate pornography fueling a C-suite circlejerk whereupon they convince each other that their workforce is motivated by a sense of belonging and not by money in the bank and time to pursue activities that actually mean something to them other than work.

Buckle up, we’re going back in.

When talking about PwC’s own journey in developing its purpose several years ago, Schuyler says, “It wasn’t that we were an organization that for 175 years were without a purpose — we just didn’t define it.” Reflecting on why PwC started doing what they did in the first place, and why it was important 175 years ago, gave clarity to what had simply carried over during the years, and what was truly their “why.”

After a business does that work, the end result — the purpose statement — shouldn’t be a surprise, nor a grand reveal. “We made a strong decision not to put our purpose external for years, because we felt that our clients should know it,” says Schuyler. “If we’re living it, they should be able to say that they trust us. We wanted them to say it before we said it.”

What. Your purpose is to provide professional services and receive money from clients in return. Why must you make this so complicated?

“The only way we got people to truly understand purpose, and look at it as a lens, was when we allowed them to go through the challenge of finding their own purpose. This helped people understand that their own role within PwC was more than just a transaction. And that for us was a game-changer.”

Here’s the worst quote:

Finding your individual purpose is hard work. “Years ago, people would say that they don’t want to be a cog in a wheel. Now, they’re okay with that — but they want to know what their wheel does. And they want that to be meaningful.”

The meaning is having PwC on their resume so they can eventually leave for a better job with fewer hours. You’re way overthinking this.

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