Learning & Development, Recruiting, Talent

Is It a Job, a Career, or a Calling?

People expect more from work than ever before: paychecks, benefits, perks, support, growth, flexibility, community, purpose, and more. Fortunately for HR and people leaders, this signals a sensational opportunity for differentiated employee experiences that attract, support, challenge, and retain individuals. The question is: How?


The science of self-actualization and flourishing can guide HR and people leaders to design employee experiences that help their people perform better and grow faster. There are critical factors that contribute to someone’s well-being when you’re aiming to create a workplace that provides more than jobs, which are a source of income, and careers, which are a source of income and advancement.

What A ‘Calling’ Looks Like

Drawing inspiration from Positive Psychology’s PERMA model, a calling should help people become the best version of themselves. In practice, that looks like:

Positive emotion (e.g., joy, happiness)—Humans can improve their ability to experience positive emotions about the past, present, and future by developing character strengths and practicing evidence-backed practices. For example, gratitude journaling can surface positive emotion about the past, and mindfulness practices can influence our positive emotions about the present moment.

HR and people leaders should design roles that develop signature strengths and create practices that support whole-person growth.

Engagement—Engagement (often called flow) is the application of one’s strengths and skills to an appropriately challenging task or role. Roles should be designed with enough challenge and variety to help people avoid boredom without becoming overwhelmingly difficult.

Relationships—Feeling connected to others is a fundamental human need, related to continued motivation and feeling supported when challenges arise. Science suggests that acts of kindness can positively influence others and ourselves.

Roles and HR programs in your organization should facilitate connections with a community of individuals to allow people to both give and receive support. Don’t forget the relationship between a team member and his or her manager, as those with monthly or less frequent one-on-ones are 1.4 times as likely to report looking for a new job.

Meaning—Meaningful work connects personal values to meaningful outcomes. Leaders and HR should ensure people understand how their work impacts a larger purpose.

Accomplishment—Achieving goals, making meaningful progress on work that matters, and increasing our competency all influence our overall well-being. HR and leadership should find ways to help people see the impact their work has on others. Ideally, people should have direct exposure to their impact—for example, by meeting their clients or viewing video testimonials.

A Broader Definition

In addition to PERMA, I would add the following characteristics to a broader definition of calling:

  • Mattering—Mattering is about feeling valued and making meaningful contributions. HR should ensure that roles provide opportunities to do work that matters and be seen for it.
  • Peak experiences—Peak experiences give us the profound feeling of possibility and connectedness. Similar to engagement, or flow, not every moment will be a peak experience, but HR can design programs to give people the freedom and flexibility to explore the world of possibilities at work and beyond.
  • Self-actualization—Whether you describe it as being and becoming your best self or reaching your highest potential, self-actualization is about growing into a unique masterpiece. By designing roles and programs with the factors above in mind, your people and organization will continue to grow.

Because people are looking for work and workplaces that meet more of their whole-person needs, HR and people leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to attract, engage, and retain the right talent by designing experiences that help people be, and become, their best selves.

Jeff Smith, PhD, is a psychologist, a cultural strategist, an inventor, and a speaker who uses design and technology to help people and organizations thrive. As the director of 15Five’s Best-Self Academy, Smith focuses on using software, services, education, and community to help people thrive at work and beyond. You can find out more about 15Five and Best-Self Academy at https://www.15five.com/.

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