Working for impact but failing to experience work as impactful

Individuals start or work in purpose-driven organisations, such as social enterprises and non-profit organisations, expecting impactful work: work that is subjectively experienced as significant, focused on serving and benefiting others in ways that transcend the self. Working in purpose-driven organisations may come with financial or personal sacrifices, yet these sacrifices are justified by the potential to experience work as impactful.

However, even when individuals work in purpose-driven organisations with missions and jobs imbued with impact, they may question if their work makes a difference. This may happen in extreme situations, such as during a crisis or when pursuing ambitious missions, such as the moon landing. But such extreme situations are not the only instances in which individuals do not experience their work as impactful.

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When do individuals question if their work makes a difference?

Indeed, our recently published research shows that individuals may question if their work is impactful in their everyday ongoing experiences in two distinct types of instances: ambiguity and discrepancy.

Ambiguity: Individuals in purpose-driven organisations doubt if their work makes a difference when they lack cues confirming positive impact. For example, when they do not have contact with beneficiaries to see the difference they are making. In these circumstances, the impact of their work is open to interpretation: it might make a difference or it might not.

Discrepancy: Individuals in purpose-driven organisations know their work does not make as much difference as they anticipated when they have cues confirming negative impact or disconfirming positive impact at the desired level. For example, when impact measurement demonstrates unintended negative impact from the work of the organisation or lower than anticipated impact. Thus, discrepancy is a different subjective experience from ambiguity because “negative” feedback evidences the gap, instead of the absence of feedback creating space for doubt.

How do individuals respond when questioning the impact of their work?

Questioning or even knowing that one’s work is not as impactful as anticipated is stressful and unpleasant. Experiencing work as impactful is important for our sense of authenticity, wellbeing, and indeed to justify (to self and others) the sacrifices individuals in purpose-driven organisations make. Thus, such questions about the impact of one’s work need to be addressed and how they are addressed depends on what subjective experiences are salient: ambiguity or discrepancy.

Create psychological closeness: When individuals in purpose-driven organisations experience ambiguityabout the impact of their work, they create psychological closeness to beneficiaries and impact. This means that they attempt to bring impact and beneficiaries closer to the individual and their daily experiences. This can be done by humanising beneficiaries, seeking appreciation interactions, and paying attention to tangible artifacts demonstrating impact. For example, individuals may go out of their way to spend time with beneficiaries. By creating psychological closeness, individuals can visualise the impact they are already contributing toward and thus minimise the ambiguity.

Broaden the scope of impact: When individuals in purpose-driven organisations experience discrepancy of impact, they broaden the scope of impact beyond the mission, walls, and beneficiaries of the organisation. This means that individuals engage in novel activities and with novel beneficiaries of their work to make a difference in additional ways. For example, they may consider that one way to make a difference at work is to support peers or their families when in need. In doing so, individuals compensate for the limited mission-oriented impact they subjectively experience and expand the ways they can make a difference.

What are the possible negative effects of these responses?

While the above responses help individuals in purpose-driven organisations to cope when questioning the impact of their work, they can have unintended consequences.

On a personal level, taking on additional responsibilities to create psychological closeness or to broaden the scope of impact can lead to role overload and burnout, putting individuals’ wellbeing at risk. This can be especially challenging for those who lack the resources for additional responsibilities due to personal caring or health needs, thus having exclusionary effects.

Purpose-driven organisations can also be negatively impacted when individuals focus on broadening the scope of impact. Prioritising tasks that offer a visible and immediate impact can lead to short-term operational issues and inefficiencies. Over time, these priorities can shift the culture and practices of the organisation, leading to mission creep as the accumulation of new goals, tasks, and programmes beyond the mission.

Experiencing work as impactful in purpose-driven organisations is not a given nor a static, but a reflexive process of interpretation and justification. Purpose-driven organisations, and the individuals in them, can benefit from cues that make impact visible in everyday work. Yet, creating these cues should not become an extra-role responsibility for individuals already operating with limited resources.