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The Energizer Blog

  • Writer's pictureEileen McDargh

Guest Post: Why Purpose Helps Build Employees’ Resiliency

Shawn Murphy author of The Optimistic Workplace
Shawn Murphy author of The Optimistic Workplace

Conservative estimates predict we spend 1/3 of our life working. Yet for many people the work experience is a negative one. Recent research from finds that 65 percent of employees would rather a new boss than receive a pay raise. In a 2012 study by Towers Watson, less than 50 percent believed senior managers were interested in employees’ well-being. These are merely a few examples of a seemingly dystopian feeling about the workplace.

It becomes difficult for employees to be resilient in a negative environment. This is bad news for organizations. If employees are unable to recover and learn from mistakes or even stressful situations, an employee’s resiliency suffers. So, too, do business results and employee engagement.

With a backdrop of demotivating, unhealthy work environments undermining performance and morale, leaders must act to reverse the ill-effects of today’s workplace. Leaders need to do their part to build employee resiliency. This is key in these dynamic times where businesses face disruption and competition on global scales unlike any other time in history. A resilient workforce will out compete a beleaguered one.

It’s an individual choice to build resilient practices. However, a leader can create the context and coach employees to develop the beliefs and associated practices to become more resilient.

Purpose and Resiliency

There’s a research experiment that tests the length of a person’s eye blink to help measure how purpose in life helps people recover faster from negative emotional stimuli. In this study by Carol Ryff and her colleagues, varying types of pictures were shown to participants. Some were disturbing while others were more pleasing in nature. The longer the eye blink the more disturbing the image. What Ryff and her fellow researchers found was that those with purpose in life had a quicker recovery time after viewing negative picture stimuli.

What we’re learning from social scientists, like Carol Ryff, about purpose is its influence on how we learn from and define negative events and move forward in a positive manner. This is where resiliency enters the picture.

The key distinction I’m referring to is personal purpose and not organizational purpose. While the latter is important, it has less influence on resiliency than does personal purpose.

For purpose to positively influence a person’s resiliency, it needs to be common, strong, and aware, claim researchers Todd Kashdan and Peter McKnight.

Purpose that is common is merely more prevalent in an employee’s life. The strength of purpose shapes employees’ thoughts, emotions, and actions. Finally, awareness of purpose is an employee’s ability to articulate her purpose.

As a leader, the following is a question pattern to discuss and learn what each employee’s purpose is. A more thorough set of questions can be found in my book, The Optimistic Workplace. Have employees write down their answers to each of the following questions.

  1. Have employees write down meaningful or rewarding behaviors in their work and in their life.

  2. Ask, “What stands out to you?”

  3. Ask, “How do you know if the behaviors are lasting elements of who you are?”

  4. Ask, “What obstacles in life positively shaped your way of living?”

  5. Ask, “What values of yours do you see in your examples?”

  6. When you look at your answers, what are the commonalities? What resonates with you? Can you see hints of your purpose in your answers?

Purpose helps strengthen resiliency. Purpose serves as a compass that guides our choices, actions, friendships and relationships, and how we choose to spend our time.

A compass is a great metaphor for resiliency, too. It assumes a journey and not being stuck in one place. Resilient employees are eager to explore the limits to their performance and potential. When you create a safe climate for them to fail, recover, and move forward, you only deepen resiliency.

This becomes more profound when you couple purpose with resiliency. Employees’ compasses are finely calibrated to where they are and where they want to go. Your role is to provide the guidance and create the context for them to achieve their goals and learn more about their limitless potential.

Despite the seemingly dystopian workplace realities, leaders can coach their employees to respond with greater resiliency to the related struggles. Purpose deepens an employee’s ability to find positivity in their work and to recover from situations in life that could undo the good that truly is possible, at work and outside of it.

The Optimistic Workplace by Shawn Murphy

Shawn Murphy is a thought leader, inspirational speaker, and CEO/Founder of Switch & Shift. Switch & Shift is a popular site advancing leaders’ understanding of human-centered leadership and business practices and a consultancy helping organizations transform to be more human.  He has a weekly column at  His debut book, The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) is now available.

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