Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Are You Helping Your Employees Fulfill Their Higher Purpose?

In May 2008, the Sichuan province in China was struck by a major earthquake, killing up to 68 000 people and leaving another 5 million people homeless.  Nine-year-old Lin Hao was at his school when the earthquake hit, bringing the building down on him and the other children in the school.  Lin Hao managed to dig himself out from the rubble but once he freed himself, he didn’t run off to search for his family or seeking refuge from the impending aftershocks.  Instead, Lin Hao went back to the collapsed building and searched for other children that were trapped in the ruins.  While digging through the rubble, he suffered injuries to his head and arms from falling debris.  However, his efforts paid off as he managed to pull out two of his classmates who had also survived the school building’s collapse.

After he helped to free his two classmates, Lin Hao continued to search for survivors and found several other children trapped deeper in the ruins.  As he couldn’t reach them, Lin Hao rested on the ruins of their school and encouraged the trapped children to sing along with him to keep their spirits up while they waited for help to arrive.  Afterwards, Lin Hao was asked why he chose to stay near these children instead of finding a safer place to wait.  Lin Hao replied “I was the hall monitor; it was my job to look after my classmates”.

It’s certainly an inspiring story of bravery and sacrifice, and I have no doubt we’ll hear similar stories from the survivors of the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan earlier this month.  Looking at it from the context of managing today’s workplaces, this story also illustrates the importance of recognizing and empowering within others the ability to fulfill their higher purpose.

Now, I’ve written before about the importance of leaders connecting an employees’ role to their organization’s purpose, as well as how leaders can communicate that connection so that their employees will have a context for how their contributions fit into the bigger picture.

But as I reflected on Lin Hao’s experiences and story, I began to wonder how many organizations are also addressing the need to connect their employees’ contributions to fulfilling a higher purpose.

Of course, many leaders will point out that they do provide their employees’ with work that comes with a sense of purpose.  For example, Robert in accounting is responsible for managing the account of a major client and Samantha in R&D is heading the team in charge of developing new advancements for their existing product lines.  While these examples might demonstrate how employees are contributing to their organization’s goals, they don’t answer the question of what their impact is beyond simply meeting the obligations of the responsibilities that go with their job function.

Indeed, as I discussed in a previous post, it’s no longer sufficient for leaders to advise their team on how they can accomplish a goal, but that they need to communicate why that accomplishment matters beyond their organization to those who are meant to benefit from their efforts.

In Lin Hao’s case, his actions weren’t simply a consequence of his responsibilities that came with serving as his school’s hall monitor.  Instead, it was because he was driven to fulfill that sense of a higher purpose which exists in each of us; that internal drive which compels us to look beyond ourselves and commit to something greater than us.

The truth is that we all have this innate desire to give back and provide a benefit to others; to contribute in a manner that is meaningful beyond our own selves.  It’s why our initial reaction to disasters like the one that hit Japan is to reach out and provide whatever assistance we can, instead of simply waving it off as being of no concern to us.

It’s also the common link shared among those organizations which are often discussed in business and public circles regarding their successes and thriving workplaces.  These organizations have learned not only to recognize this truth, but how they can foster a culture and process which taps into this innate drive found in each of us.

This also underlies the new reality employers face in today’s work environment, in which organizations shouldn’t be focusing solely on retaining or attracting the top talent in their fields.  Instead, their goal should be to retain and attract employees who share the same values as their organization.  This way, an organization’s values won’t simply be mere words in the employee handbook, but behaviours and beliefs which will naturally manifest themselves through the conduct and efforts of their employees.

With such measures in place, leaders will be able to provide their employees with opportunities to go beyond simply fulfilling their positional/transactional obligations, to committing their talents and resources in providing a lasting value and benefit to those they serve.

And as Lin Hao showed us, when that happens, our sense of responsibility and commitment is no longer defined by circumstance or situation as it is by our sense of fulfilling a higher purpose through our actions.  Under those conditions, not only do organizations and societies thrive, but also the individuals who make up that community.

So, how are you helping your employees to fulfill their higher purpose?

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  1. On March 28th, 2011 at 8:29 PM Chuck Hebert said:

    Tanveer – Thanks for sharing this story. Pretty powerful stuff. We just had a similar discussion within my organization about creating what we called the "rally cry." It was in the context of everyone working together for a common purpose that was greater than just making the company better – but really having a common connection that spoke to how we help make our customers or our own employees' lives better. Good stuff.

  2. On March 29th, 2011 at 11:17 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Chuck; I'm glad you enjoyed it. Sounds to me like your organization is on the right track of your employees for a larger and more meaningful context for the efforts and contributions they bring to your organization.

    Again, glad you enjoyed this piece, Chuck.

  3. On March 28th, 2011 at 9:02 PM Kate Nasser said:

    Very thought provoking post Tanveer — and one that many will find challenging to fulfill. How does one take a team past the P/L focus of so many companies.

    This is the question I always ask when I go in to do team building or training on customer care. Each session participant has some inner sense that I seek to tap!

    Applause to you on this post and I will share it with others to keep this call to action — in action!

    Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach

  4. On March 29th, 2011 at 11:21 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Kate; I agree with you that this is no small challenge for organizations to address in how they manage their employees. However, if there's one lesson that's become abundantly clear in the last decade is that staying in the middle is the surest route to obsolescence.

    While technology might have been the differentiator between companies and their ability to thrive in the past, the reality is that it's now an organization's employees who hold the key to their collective success and growth.

    In that light, the biggest hurdle companies face for growth these days is not competition, but complacency brought on by a false assumption that past successes can be replicated by continuing down the same road.

    Thanks again for the kind words, Kate, and for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  5. On March 29th, 2011 at 12:44 PM SPGonz said:

    Excellent Post and Incredible Story. The connection here between humanity and the workplace is right on.

    I agree, it is important for leaders to understand that people want to have a positive impact on the lives/businesses of others, but I also believe the challenge is how do you (leadership) get the others to recognize the need that goes beyond reaching their goals/budgets and putting money in their pocket.

    As I have read in Pink's "Drive", people are not entirely motivated by money – they want autonomy and a sense of purpose. The challenge, I believe, is getting the staff to understand what their sense of purpose is, what impact they can have on the lives/businesses of others, and how that will impact their lives. Especially in today's business culture, where the bottom line is so present and growing market share is so demanding, communicating and instilling a greater sense of purpose is difficult.

    This post and story is extremely eye opening – Great work.

    Thanks Tanveer


  6. On March 29th, 2011 at 4:32 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Steve; glad you enjoyed this piece.

    To answer your query about how leaders can get others to recognize this need, I think the first step is for leaders to understand this reality themselves. We've all read numerous surveys and reports that demonstrate a disconnect between what leaders think motivates their employees and what their employees are actually motivated by. In fact, a new report came out this week that said such disconnect even exists between the CEO and the other executives in the C-suite in terms of what they're motivated or driven by.

    So for starters, I think what's needed is for leaders to set the example, by going out and understanding their employees, of what their sense of higher purpose is and then enabling them through their roles/function within the organization to achieve it.

    Thanks again, Steve for the kind words and for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  7. On March 30th, 2011 at 10:16 AM Delena said:

    Wow, what an amazing story! And Lin Hao is truly heroic. How many adults would have been so inspiring as to keep a group of children singing while trapped beneath the rubble? How many would have thought of it?

    The idea of the higher purpose can get lost very quickly in the quagmire of the daily details, the minutiae that drag us down. The motivations of one person are rarely the same as another, and the disconnect happens because so many are unwilling to learn about each other.


  8. On March 30th, 2011 at 4:24 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Delena. You're right that it's easy for the goal of addressing a higher purpose through our actions to be swept aside by the deluge of tasks, emails, meetings and so forth that tend to preoccupy most of our time at work. However, as those organizations which many of us admire and wish to emulate show us, it can be done if we're willing to move past simply committing to the idea to making it a reality behind what we do. If nothing else, they're proof of the payoff that comes from making that effort.

    Thanks again, Delena, for sharing your thoughts.

  9. On April 12th, 2011 at 5:55 AM John Volton said:

    Hi Tanveer! I really enjoyed reading your post! I learned a lot in your content. Also, I realized one thing, the more people who are lead properly to their purpose, the more successful your organization will be. Organizations should not just focus on accomplishing their goals but also giving importance to the development of their employees and making them realize their importance to the organization and their purpose. This is good! It’s very nice of you to share this.

  10. On April 12th, 2011 at 10:40 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks John; glad you enjoyed this piece.

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