Oswald Letter

Be sure your people know “why” they’re important

purpose - cube with letters, sign with wooden cubesby Dan Oswald

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. His experiences in the German concentration camps gave him a unique perspective on the importance of purpose in a person’s life.

While in the concentration camps, Frankl lost nearly everything. His father and mother died in the camps, as did his wife and brother. He was forced to give up every possession he had in life. He was starved, beaten, and stripped naked. Yet he persevered.

After this horrific experience, Frankl was able to point to the thing that kept him going day after day for six months, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

According to Frankl, the people who were able to survive the concentration camps had something they held so dear or believed in so strongly that they could endure any circumstance. It may have been the thought of returning to a loved one, some unfinished work they felt compelled to complete, or their faith in a greater purpose for themselves beyond the fences of the camp, but there was something the survivors clung to that carried them through. Frankl would quote Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

Those who were able to survive imprisonment in the concentration camps demonstrated the importance of having a purpose. A person with no aim or purpose is soon lost, but those who have a “why” have a reason to push forward and survive.

As a manager, it’s your job to communicate that vision for your team. You must provide your team members with a purpose they can believe in. For people to grow and succeed, they must know that they are working for something bigger than themselves and for something more than a paycheck. People want to see that the work they do makes a difference—not just for the bottom line of the company but also for society as a whole.

A thriving business provides paychecks for its employees and a return on investment for its shareholders, but it does so much more. A thriving business serves its customers and meets a need that exists in the world. A thriving business has the opportunity to give back to the communities in which it operates. A thriving business can be a force of good in the world.

Look, I get it, coming to work every day doesn’t compare to striving to survive each day in a concentration camp. I realize that people don’t need a higher purpose to survive another day at your company. But that doesn’t mean your people aren’t looking for purpose in their work—to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It’s your job to provide it.

You don’t have to make something up; you just need to clearly articulate what each member of your team contributes to the group’s collective success. What is each person’s role? Why is that role critical to your success? How is the team making a difference within the company? What is the team’s contribution to the company’s success? How is the company contributing to society? Piece by piece, block by block, you can show every member of your team what the company is building, how the team contributes to it, and how each individual is important to that success.

Scientists from Johns Hopkins University surveyed nearly 8,000 students from 48 colleges. They asked the students to rank how important a variety of things were to them at that point in their lives. Seventy-eight percent listed their top goal as “finding a purpose and meaning to my life.” I’m sure that based on his experience and observations in the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl wouldn’t have been surprised by that response.

Frankl ended up writing the book Man’s Search for Meaning. He understood we all want to have a meaningful purpose in our life. You have the opportunity to provide a purpose for each person who works for you. You can show them how they make a difference every day. Now that’s something worth coming to work for!

2 thoughts on “Be sure your people know “why” they’re important”

  1. While I agree that, as managers, we need to communicate the importance of the work that is being done and assist in connecting the work to the business goals – finding real purpose in your work is a very personal matter. To find the type of purpose that truly motivates you and gets you to provide that elusive discretionary effort, that must come from within the employee. I understand my work, the company’s goals, and how my work is tied to those goals. But “the one thing” that motivates me each day is something that falls outside of the written purposes and goals.

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