WLP171: The Problem with 'Purpose'

WLP171 The Problem With Purpose

Today's episode looks at finding meaning in our work - and whether we might attach too much meaning, to finding that meaning!

So much podcasting on our minds at Virtual Not Distant - we're about to launch our new service, helping plan and create in-house podcasts for distributed teams, so look out for an announcement very soon. And Pilar is planning a podcast about podcasting - how meta is that?

Also, you still have time to book up for our remote team leadership webinar on 6th June, in collaboration with Training Zone and Gotomeeting - we would love to see some of our podcast listeners there, so do learn more and register here.

Media Commentary: Imposing 'meaningful work' can lead to staff burnout

Maya and Pilar discuss this Science Daily article about the potential mismatch between organisational and individual motivation – you can’t tell people what should be important to them. And you can’t generate intrinsic motivation with a flowery corporate values statement.  Long before you get burn-out and resignations, the phenomenon of ‘existential labour’ suggests a painful phase of "faking it", in the face of an expectation that you should always be passionate about what you do. 

But people find meaning in their lives in so many different ways, and there are many times people do work which pays the bills and is “fine” – why should they have to put on an act for their employers, that their behaviour is stemming from their values if it isn’t? Even to the point that the employee winds up feeling conflicted and confused, about what they really feel. Social determination theory suggests we should find plenty of meaning in autonomy competence and relatedness – and this could be quite enough to provide a wholly satisfactory working life, do we absolutely have to have "purpose" as well?

Maybe we shouldn’t idealise work, the work which most of us do every day. We talk about ‘the lottery test’ – would you carry on working? Most of us say yes would – but let’s remember that this is a thought exercise, not a real-life test!

What do you think? 

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Audio Blog: Motivation in Virtual Teams

Giving this popular post a 4th birthday outing, we dig deeper in to the social determination theory we touched on in the media commentary. 

And it’s interesting to see how whilst the tools we use at work can change so much over that time, the way they are used for different purposes as the software landscape evolves has changed too – and the way users adapt them to their own needs and preferences, which might not be what the developers intended! 

As work changes, the ways we collaborate and connect changes too. And so does the way we give each other feedback, find our motivation, and receive validation for our work. 

But the fundamental principles of leadership haven’t changed. Helping people fulfil their needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness through their work, remains the best way to lead a healthy happy team. 

Recommended Reading: Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us


Pilar reflects on Daniel Pink’s excellent book Drive, and his commentary on Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory.

He talks about mastery rather than competence, which perhaps doesn’t reflect how motivating the journey can be – but purpose remains the most important of all.

Purpose is truly an internal motivator, it can’t be dictated to you by a manager or mission statement.

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