Redefining purpose as an anchor in uncertainty

How’s your team shaping up on the return to work? Maybe you’ve got team members who were the first to rush back into the workplace, and others who are still choosing to work from home? Have you had to make tough choices around reducing head count? Or are you still heavily restricted in your business as usual activities?  It seems we’re a long way from the promised land of a ‘new normal’.  For most of us it’s more of ‘limbo land’.  We’re not quite one thing, or another… no longer in lockdown, but not operating with the previous levels of freedom and socialisation that would have characterised the culture of many of our organisations pre-March 21 in the UK.

There’s both a cultural and personal impact of living and working in this ‘limbo land’.  (Limbo’s definition is ‘an uncertain period of awaiting a decision’.)

Uncertainty is a stress multiplier. (Uncertainty is associated with a range of psychological maladies including depression, anxiety, and psychiatric symptoms) Stewart and Mishel, 2000).

Whether we’re working from home, back to the workplace, unsure of long term job security, or preparing for a September return to education that is unlike any before, uncertainty is a chronic undercurrent to our daily lives.  And for many of us the resulting stress will impact our performance.

Stress or Pressure?

We all face both stress and pressure in our personal and professional lives. Hendrie Weisinger (“Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most,” defines the two (often interchangable words) as

  • Stress refers to the situation of too many demands and not enough resources to meet them
  • Pressure is a situation in which you perceive that something at stake is dependent on the outcome of your performance  (More in this article

The cause of this stress is the very real challenges many of us face in attempting to operate in ongoing uncertainty.  Waiting it out isn’t an option any more.  We have to move forward while still uncertain.

So how can we alleviate stress caused by uncertainty?  How can we redress the balance and take control in an uncontrollable situation?

In a recent podcast, Dr Dan Fujiwara (The Magic Academy, Season 5, Eps 18) said ‘Purpose is more valuable that pleasure for wellbeing’.

It really struck a chord for me when considering the current uncertainty.   For many, the silver lining of the horrendous global Covid-19 situation has been far greater work/home balance.  The ability to see children at dinner time, less commitments in the diary, more time in the home environment with evening zoom calls to friends and family.

But I wonder how much of this change in our lifestyle habits has been mislabelled ‘pleasure’ .. when in fact it supports a ‘higher purpose’ that we were already craving?  The opportunity to self identify as more than the ‘job role’, and to invest valuable time into living the roles of mother, partner, daughter or friend, intentionally and with purpose.

Any shift in our personal identity and clarity of purpose will obviously have an impact on our identity and focus back in the workplace.

In a conversation this week, I was surprised to hear of a BOA Olympic athlete who revealed 6 months before a games ‘I don’t know what the point is.  It’s only a gold medal after all.’  He was suffering from a crisis of certainty, a lack of compelling purpose, which shook his identity and made him question his ambition and performance.

We’re all standing in a different position to the one we were in early March.  We need to take the time to understand this and work out what it means for our work identity.  We each need to take the time to ‘claim’ our purpose as an anchor in the continuing uncertainty.  We need to know our work adds value, our team has purpose and to be aligned to our organisations purpose.

As leaders, exploring purpose with your team members should be one of your first steps on the return to work. And then you’ll be able to answer with confidence how your team is shaping up.