Can Purpose Be Found in the Mess of Modern Work?

Building a great workforce starts with leadership's understanding of how to help employees buy into what the organization is trying to accomplish, beyond completing day-to-day tasks.

There is a timeless parable of a traveler who comes across three stonecutters and asks them what they are doing. The first replies, “I am cutting stones.” The second keeps on hammering while saying, “I am making a living.” The third looks up with a visionary gleam in his eye and says, “I am building a cathedral.”

The way that we lead flows from our perspective on the relationship between a leader and their team. I believe there are two basic worldviews on leadership. Some leaders think that people go to work with the intent to do their best; they see their team as a great group of cathedral builders. Other leaders take the view that people’s prevailing instinct is to coast by, doing as little as possible — reluctant stone cutters that need to be pushed into building the necessary pile of rocks.

The first leadership outlook creates a culture of trust, collaboration, and innovation. The second creates a workplace where everyone looks over their shoulder and refuses to try new things for fear of failing. People rise or fall to your level of expectation. If you invite them to build a cathedral, they will see their work as art. If you instruct them to pile up some stones, you will get a ragged jumble of rubble.

But it takes more work to envision a cathedral than to direct people to hack away at a bunch of boulders. It takes the work of knowing the difference between action and purposeful action. Action for the sake of action crowds out the tasks that matter most. Purposeful action, on the other hand, helps your entire team focus on what needs to get done now. Compounding this challenge is the work crisis brought on by the rapid pace of digital transformation.

This work crisis is evident in Workfront’s State of Work report, which includes survey data from more than 2,000 knowledge workers in the US. In this report we note that the average person says they spend only 40% of their week on their primary job duties. At the same time, 62% cite wasteful meetings, and 55% say that excessive email gets in the way of work. That’s not purposeful action. That’s action for the sake of action.

Given these facts, it’s no wonder that our State of Work report also shows that 58% say they’re so swamped with day-to-day work they can’t think beyond their daily task list.

Yet within these you can also see the cathedral builders are active. Sixty-four percent of workers say that their workplace regularly asks them to think of how to do things in a completely new way, and 61% of workers say the work they do matters to them personally.

If you want to build an exceptional team — one that avoids these common workplace pitfalls — you’ve got to find a way to encourage workers to take purposeful action.

First, start from the worldview that the average worker wants to do great work, believes that their work matters, and craves more time to innovate. But something is getting in their way. They can't do the work they want because they spend so much of their time swamped with day-to-day work at the expense of their primary tasks and innovating on the job.

Second, encourage workers to live a great story instead of just setting goals and objectives. Every great story is about someone who overcomes something to get what they want. So even as you work hard to get the non-purposeful action out of their way, you can help people understand that obstacles are part of the journey. If your team senses that you believe in their story they’ll then have the tenacity and the capacity to overcome the challenges that will continue to arise during the digital transformation.

So why not try it out? Be a cathedral builder instead of a stone cutter. Adopt a worldview that your team really does want to do great work. Spend your time getting rid of the non-puposeful work in their lives and help them live a great story.

Alex Shootman is president and CEO at Workfront, the modern work management application platform that connects enterprise work, collaboration, and digital content into an operational system of record (OSR).