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4 strategies for promoting passion and purpose in the workplace

Yonason Goldson explains how leaders who project an autotelic sense of mission, vision, and nobility promote a cultural attitude geared to succeed.

4 strategies for promoting passion and purpose in the workplace
[Source photo: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels]

Many years ago, I introduced my six-year-old son to Chutes and Ladders. He took to the classic board game immediately, and we bonded while moving our respective pieces up and down the board. At last, he rolled a five and counted square by square until his piece landed on the finish line.

“You won!” I cried out, expecting him to respond with joyful exuberance.

Instead, my son looked at the board, looked at me, and burst into tears.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, genuinely bewildered.

“I want to keep playing!” he said, bawling.

Do you remember when you wanted to play the game more than you wanted to win the game? The truth is, that’s how our brains are wired. But as we grow up, we get conditioned to think otherwise.

The Hebrew word for a toy or game is sha’ashua, which translates literally as turning toward. In our hypercompetitive world, we’ve largely forgotten that the sweetest sense of contentment comes not from winning but from playing. There’s nothing as relentlessly delicious as approaching the end, continuously, turn after turn. Indeed, after the game is over, what do we really have to show for the time we invested except the pleasure of the game itself?

We’ve all heard the cliché that the journey is the destination. But clichés become clichés because they are true, and the lesson of game-playing offers much insight into the attitude we cultivate toward work and life in general. That’s why I was so delighted when Melissa Hughes, a neuroscientist and a dear friend, introduced me to this week’s entry into the Ethical Lexicon:

Autotelic (au·to·tel·ic/ aw-tuh-tel-ik) adjective

  1. Someone or something that has a purpose in, and not apart from, itself
  2. Describing a person who is internally driven by purpose and curiosity

There are many extrinsic reasons for why we do things. Among the main motivators of human behavior: money, recognition, amusement, power, security, distraction, and reciprocity. That said, some involvements are worth doing simply because they are worth doing—and it shouldn’t be necessary to choose between one and the other.

I work to support myself and my family, but I also want to find my work rewarding and fulfilling. I give charity knowing I’ll get a tax write-off, but I also appreciate contributing to a noble cause. I volunteer at a soup kitchen because it makes me feel good about myself, but I also recognize that someone has to do it, so it might as well be me.

Hughes cites social theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who beautifully describes immersion in an activity for its own sake as key to that elusive ideal we all yearn for, the mysterious state of being called flow:

“The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Employers and managers lament the lack of worker engagement, loyalty, and productivity. But leaders have many arrows in their quiver with which they can aim to promote a more vibrant company culture. Here are a few basic strategies to generate the passion that increases flow:

  • Compose and publicize a compelling mission statement: Why are we here?  What is our purpose?  How are we making the world a better place?  Making money is not enough.
  • Articulate core values: Can your people identify your organization’s foundational ideals? If not, it might be because they’ve never heard them. And that might be because you haven’t thought them through yourself.
  • Empower your people: When employees don’t feel they have the tools, training, or clarity they need to do their jobs, how can they possibly feel energized or enthusiastic about their work?
  • Let go of the reins: When employees feel trusted to make their own decisions, they naturally feel more responsible and more committed, which motivates them to rise to the occasion because they see themselves as partners and stakeholders.

Jewish philosophy teaches that the most meritorious and praiseworthy way to perform a good deed is “for the sake of the deed itself.” On the surface, that might seem unrealistic. After all, we can never entirely free ourselves from ulterior motives or the baser drive of self-interest.

But there is no existential contradiction here; it is merely part of the uniquely inspiring paradox of being fully human. Accepting the irrevocable presence of our lesser selves is not shameful, as long as we strive sincerely to seize hold of our better angels.

When leaders project an autotelic sense of mission, vision, and nobility, they promote a cultural attitude geared to succeed. True, that success will carry with it the fulfillment of more pedestrian motivators. But in the end, realizing those ulterior motives will never match the rewards of daily commitment to something greater than ourselves and the satisfaction of a job well done. And once we achieve that, the banality and tedium of the daily grind will quickly vanish amid the glow of authentic meaning, inspired purpose, and accelerated productivity.

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Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics that earns trust, sparks initiative, and limits liability. He is host of the podcast Grappling with the Gray, and author of the book by the same name. More

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