What is the secret to a fulfilling career? Most advice focuses on finding purpose and satisfaction in your work. If you can just land the perfect job by doing meaningful work, you’ll finally be happy.
But research across a wide range of organisations and industries shows that our understanding of what leads to professional satisfaction is often misplaced. People tend to overestimate the importance of the what, when they should be focusing on the who.
In interviews with a diverse group of 160 people from a variety of industries and positions, it was consistently found that flourishing in your career depends as much on your relationships, both in and out of work, as it does on your job itself. People whose work is mundane or demanding are just as likely to feel satisfied and fulfilled as those with fun or inspiring jobs if they proactively invest in relationships that nourish them and create a sense of purpose.
The importance of relationships is backed up by research. Studies show that social connections play a central role in fostering a sense of purpose and well-being in the workplace. They also impact the bottom line. Effective management of social capital within organisations facilitates learning and knowledge sharing, increases employee retention and engagement, reduces burnout, sparks innovation, and improves employee and organisational performance.
As part of our Connected Commons research initiative, exploring the link between personal networks and professional success, my colleagues and I have talked to hundreds of people about how they transformed their careers and their lives through relationships. One of the stories that stuck came from Gail, a senior executive at a technology company.
She reached a turning point when she was admitted to hospital for six weeks, in part because of work stress. A friend from church gently reminded her: “You know this is not what life’s all about, right?”
Like so many of today’s workers, she was burnt out. She realised that the cure was to reprioritise her professional and personal relationships, and be intentional about how she structured her time. Now, every Monday, she spends an hour with her staff to review her calendar for the next four weeks. “If what is there does not align with people, purpose or passion, it gets moved. I know where my priorities are and how I want each of my 24 hours to be spent,” she said.
Despite a busy professional schedule, she has strengthened ties to her family and church community to keep her grounded outside of work. She and her husband regularly evaluate whether they are spending their time on the people and activities that matter most. By intentionally managing her time and proactively nurturing key relationships, she has come to feel more satisfied and balanced in her life and in her career. She has since been promoted three times.
Her story may seem extreme, but you don’t have to wait for a crisis moment to find the same sense of fulfillment and purpose she discovered. The first step is to clarify your pole star objectives – the values, capabilities, and expertise you want to exemplify in your work. Think of these as a personal navigation system for your career.
As Marcy, a senior executive at an insurance company, said: “Playing defence (means) you are always reactive and living in fear. The only way to get out of it is to get clarity on who you are and what you want to do, and start forging a path and network that enable you to get there.”
Guided by your pole star, review your professional and personal calendar for the coming month and consider which interactions bring you closer to your objectives and which pull you further away. Are you collaborating with people who share your values or who can teach you new ways of looking at things? Do you thrive when interacting with people who are upbeat, analytical, calm, or ambitious? This exercise isn’t about which colleagues you like on a personal level or want to socialise with. It’s about understanding which relationships and interactions are fulfilling, motivating, and aligned with your purpose.
Once you have clarity on your pole star objectives and the relationships that will help you achieve them, start being intentional about how you spend your time. You want to proactively anchor yourself in nourishing relationships that give you a sense of purpose and buffer you against depleting ones that pull you away from it. Gail makes an effort to identify and nurture key relationships, including confidants who share her values and will tell her the truth, a “brains trust” that offers new perspectives, and experts who can help fill specific knowledge gaps.
It is essential to invest in meaningful relationships outside of work. Our research has repeatedly shown that people who thrive are anchored in at least one or two non-work communities. This is more than blowing off steam on a treadmill or reading a book alone at night.
Pick an activity you want to invest time in and do it with a group. Better yet, set goals with other members of the group so that you commit to persisting. Making time for non-work commitments is not just fulfilling; it also helps sustain your mental and physical energy. Relationships outside work broaden our perspective and tap into aspects of our identity that don’t rise and fall with how well things are going in the office.
In addition to anchoring on nourishing relationships, it is equally important to buffer your time against draining interactions.
While few of us have total control over our schedules, we have more opportunities than we realise to guard our time. Most knowledge workers spend 85% of their day in meetings or communicating over email or phone. If we can protect just a bit more time from this collaborative overload, by keeping the goals for meetings clear, we can invest it in the relationships that help us.
Other popular strategies for buffering your time include creating rules for when you check email or make phone calls, blocking time in your calendar for breaks or energising projects and creating hard stops at the end of the day. One couple, who work at a large technology company, agreed that after they pass a certain landmark on their commute home, they can’t talk about work anymore. They need their relationship to shift from professional to personal at the end of the day. Buffers like this allow you to take back control and stop letting habit and circumstance dictate how your time is spent.
Being more intentional in managing your time and interactions may feel daunting. Yet never in the history of work have we had more opportunity to sculpt what we do and who we do it with. Despite this flexibility, we too often cede control unnecessarily, letting other people dictate our priorities and fill up our schedules.
When Amara, an operations leader at a pharmaceutical company, was selected for a promotion, she negotiated the ability to work from home one to two days a week. As she said: “People said, ‘How did you get that?’” I responded: ‘I asked. Have you ever asked?’” Sometimes we are the ones standing in our own way.
Many of us strive for a meaningful job, an impressive title or a sizeable salary at the ideal company. In doing so, we drastically undervalue the importance of relationships, although extensive research shows that it is people, not the perfect job, that lead to fulfillment. By being clear about our north star purpose, anchoring ourselves in relationships that lead us there and buffering against those that pull us away, we can find the satisfaction we’re seeking right where we are.
This first appeared in Harvard Business Review.