The Role of ‘Sense of Purpose’ in Employee Engagement

Having a sense of purpose is central to effective employee engagement, and there are three dimensions to this, that if understood, can contribute effectively to organisational engagement strategies. I call these dimensions:

  1. Intrinsic Sense of Purpose
  2. Extrinsic Sense of Purpose
  3. Adapted Sense of Purpose

Below is a short descriptor of each type of Purpose.

Intrinsic Sense of Purpose
This is really about those fundamental questions like; Who am I? or What are my values? We may never fully know the answers to these types of questions, but for most people there tends to be a sense of what the answers are, especially on the values side of things.  I like to think of this as being our internal compass and life vest all rolled into one.  It gives us direction, and in those times when the direction isn’t clear, or we lose our way, our values can act as our life vest to keep us afloat until we regain traction.  If we are unable to access, develop or acknowledge our Intrinsic Sense of Purpose, we aren’t in the best position to optimise our Extrinsic Sense of Purpose.

Extrinsic Sense of Purpose
This is the part of us that the rest of the world can see when seeking to fulfil our Intrinsic Sense of Purpose, whether it be in our career, our personal activities or the way we engage with family and friends.  Ideally, in a professional context, we would like to think that what we do for a living is an extension of ‘who’ we are and the reality is that this is true for all of us, no matter what our country or culture.  In Asian and Middle East cultures, for example, our work team really is an extension of our family on many levels with individual purpose being reinforced through acceptance of, and belonging to, the group.  This of course relies on knowing ‘who’ our colleagues are and what they stand for and is as important, if not more important, than knowing ‘what’ we are here to do.  Whilst in cultures, like that found in Anglo countries, there is a continuous need for organisations to understand and express its Intrinsic Sense of Purpose in an effort to attract and retain employees by demonstrating that what it stands for is good for the Intrinsic needs of the people it hopes to attract and for those who already work there.

So our Extrinsic Sense of Purpose serves the purpose of being fulfilling on a practical level (I enjoy what I do) and reinforcing our Intrinsic Sense of Purpose (I enjoy how I do what I do and why I do what I do).

Adapted Sense of Purpose
This is an interesting place to be as there are times when our Intrinsic and Extrinsic senses of Purpose aren’t in alignment.  This can be when we aren’t sure of ‘who’ we are but we are finding ways to sustain ourselves externally with the hope that this will provide clarity on who we are. This can be caused by a major life event which creates the need to re-evaluate who we are, and can sometimes seem like it’s always a work in progress.

There are also those times when we are sure of who we are, but our Extrinsic activities are out of alignment.  For example, when we are starting out in our career, there is sometimes the need to take what we can get to build up experience.  There are also those times when we are caught up in a restructure or major organisational change; and then there is the more stark situation that comes with expats moving from one country to another.  In all of these situations we are required to adapt temporarily until we can find that common ground, or reconcile between who we are and where we find ourselves.

The Challenge and the Opportunity
It is in the Adapted space that we can lose people…no matter the circumstance.  It is in this adapted space that we see the largest turnover of expats during the assignment and upon return due to culture shock, reverse culture shock and a lack of planning to support effective return of the expat.  In change management, we lose people because the change plan didn’t take into consideration how people will feel, react or perceive the change.  In restructures, it is more obvious because who we can often be wrapped up in what we do.

This challenge also represents the greatest opportunity for both the individual and the organisation.  It is in the Adapted space when there is the greatest opportunity for personal and professional growth.

If you are able to identify those moments in your organisation when at either an individual, team or functional level, there is likely to be gap between the Intrinsic Sense of Purpose and the Extrinsic Sense of Purpose, that’s where the work is to be done.  That’s precisely the place where concerns are planned for, fears are addressed, excitement is harnessed and progress can be created.

We often miss this piece as we are focussed mainly on the external factors, for example, what I want you to be doing compared to what you are doing today.  And our change plan supports this in a structured and behaviourally focussed way. 

However, if we are prepared to explore the space between who our people are (and therefore the reason why they likely joined your organisation) and what we are asking them to do differently, (and therefore the intrinsic impact this will have on them), we are in a better position to drive genuine engagement.  

Ponte Valle Insight: The Role of ‘Sense of Purpose’ in Employee Engagement

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