The Psychology of Individual Purpose – and How It Fits into Recruiting

The IT and cybersecurity labor market is more competitive than ever, requiring a new perspective on work itself. More and more, employees are looking for roles that align with their personal goals and sense of purpose, rather than just a paycheck and a particular job title. Recruiters looking to succeed in this challenging market will need a shift in focus to highlight these aspects of open roles and land top talent.


What Does Purpose Mean?

Anthony Burrow, a psychologist, Cornell professor, and head of the Purpose and Identity Processes Lab, we can look at purpose as “a self-organizing life aim. It is a view ahead—something you’re looking forward to and working toward. We think of it as a gaze that remains in front of you even as you’re moving forward. It’s not an accomplishment that has a terminal outcome. It’s bigger than that; it helps you organize your goals and know what to pursue next.”

Purpose goes far beyond “just” having goals. It’s a broader pursuit of meaning, making it more of a driving force behind more specific, results-oriented goals. A sense of purpose can provide a source of meaning and development, with more of a value-oriented basis that is pursued and evolves over time.

When times are uncertain, a sense of purpose can also be a truly steadying influence. Burrow’s research suggests that having purpose can lend a sense of “psychological homeostasis.” In other words, a secure sense of purpose can help us remain somewhat stable when we feel like we’re on unsteady ground. Individuals – or, indeed, whole organizations – driven by a stronger purpose are more likely to successfully navigate changes or challenges, because they feel less shaken and more equipped to adapt.


Purpose, Work, and Recruiting

Today’s employees are particularly discerning when considering where they want to work, particularly in the IT and cybersecurity world, where open roles sometimes outnumber qualified candidates. Employees want to work for an organization whose purpose and values align with theirs, and, in turn, companies are seeking talent who will play a significant role in furthering their own missions.

One analysis from Strategy + Business and PwC notes how “more clients’ hiring discussions and decisions take into account a candidate’s life goals and desired experiences, and how the organization – and its purpose – can help the individual achieve them.” This indicates a shift in the kinds of questions asked during the recruiting process, with a shift in focus to more of a candidate-centric experience. Landing top IT talent means better addressing candidates’ needs and preferences, from tangible factors like pay and benefits to the intangibles such as how a role fits into their overall pursuit of meaningful work.

The tech world has always been one where most employees expect to change companies multiple times. Now, that’s even more in the open, with many actually preferring the ability to move around. Workers are still interested in internal career development, but they’re also framing their thoughts around how a particular role at a particular company could help them gain skills and experiences that play into their larger sense of purpose.

Feeling aligned on core values can have a significant impact on whether or not a candidate accepts a role, or whether they will stay in one place long-term. One LinkedIn study called out several indicators of just how important that alignment is:

  • 71% of employees would take a pay cut if it meant working for a company whose mission and values they share.
  • 39% of employees would leave their current jobs if asked or required to do something that conflicted with their values.
  • 47% of employees feel proudest when they work for companies that foster a culture where they truly can be themselves, and 46% say they are proudest to work at companies that have a positive impact on society.

When it comes to recruiting for in-demand IT roles, understanding and relating to candidates’ sense of self and search for purpose is critical. On the flip side, it’s equally important for candidates to get a fuller understanding of a company’s own purpose and culture, in hopes of ensuring a good fit and a positive experience.


Purpose Throughout Life

Tech-oriented fields have always been enamored with the idea of “disruption,” even down to the way that careers are structured. For purpose-driven employees, careers aren’t just about climbing a ladder at one company. Instead, they’re more interested in moving around, across segments of an organization, or even jumping to another company altogether. As their sense of purpose changes throughout their lives, so too does their sense of how work fits in with that purpose. A more fluid, skills-based approach to career paths lends itself more naturally to this perspective on work and on life as a whole.

As a result, companies are rethinking the general concept of a career and of career mobility. To retain top talent and ensure that they still feel like their purpose and the company’s purpose are aligned, organizations may work on developing more flexible and creative paths that allow people to better pursue their own purpose, even as it changes. Transparency is key, as workers seek out roles that offer them the ability to chase their own goals and build the careers they’re after, all while staying in line with the company’s own mission and goals.

Those same organizational missions and purposes may also be changing in today’s world. Companies must consider how they manage the competing needs and preferences of a wide range of stakeholders, both internally and externally. A shift in the understanding of “purpose” may help to clarify and encompass multiple experiences and multiple goals at once, understanding that these differences can appeal to and target different demographics and therefore drive continued success.

Purpose, and what drives each person’s innate sense of purpose, is likely to change throughout a person’s life. The same is true for businesses and careers, requiring a new perspective on hiring and retention. To build a top-performing team for the long haul, it’s critical that employers develop their understanding of purpose and its evolution, then incorporate it into the recruiting and career-pathing plan from the start.


By Daniel Midoneck

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