How to inspire employees when (on the surface of things) you have no higher purpose
As human beings, there’s one question that both drives and alludes us above all others.
What’s the point? Why am I doing this? What’s the purpose?
Understanding our place and impact in the wider context of society is an obsession that has motivated many a soul-search. Our own mortality is a constant driver to find meaning, reasons, or value in how we spend our time.
As the place where many of us will dedicate the majority of our adult lives, it’s a preoccupation that has now translated into today’s modern workplace. Historically, we may have been contented to turn up, clock in, and clock out: to collect our pay check every other Friday and give our commitment to the same company for 30+ years. Today’s emerging workforce, however, have different motivators.
“Millennials don’t just work for a paycheck – they want a purpose[…]to work for organizations with a mission and purpose,” Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of Gallup writes in ‘How Millennials want to work and live”.
In fact, research by LinkedIn shows 49% of employees would trade a portion of their salary to continue in their current role with an added sense of purpose. Our staff want to know that the hours they commit are valuable; that the work they do makes a difference, is important, has an impact.
However, what happens when – at least on the face of it – your organization doesn’t appear to contribute to a higher purpose?
“I don’t see the point”.
For some industries it’s relatively easy to make the link. In non-profit organizations, for example, you’re working for a defined cause; in the healthcare sector, your efforts may improve or even save people’s lives.
But for the cash register attendant working on the shop floor, or the production line worker examining nuts on a conveyor, that sense of purpose may be harder to identify.
Admittedly, not every single employee is motivated by purpose, nor is it a silver bullet to win over our staff: establishing a ‘higher ideal’ to work towards can’t take the place of fair remuneration, health insurance, or job security. However, the majority recognize that feeling they’re just working for a paycheck isn’t enough. Staff want to feel they’re contributing to the greater good of society and build a sense of connection with their work and company.
But why should we, as organizations or leaders, care?
If staff have philanthropic morals or objectives, why don’t they pursue these in their own time?
The fact is, purpose-driven organizations see a direct benefit to the bottom line. Those staff who feel they are working with a sense of purpose demonstrate improved motivation, productivity, morale, and overall job satisfaction (Forbes). Purpose-driven individuals are also 30% more likely to be high performers and almost 50% more likely to be promoters of their company: in an age where those can be powerful differentiators, it’s time organizations sat up and listened.
Happiness: the key to business success
“We don’t know what we’re working for”
Thriving employees are three times more likely to work for a company with a strong sense of purpose; however, only 13% of surveyed companies offer an employee value proposition (EVP) differentiated by a purpose-driven mission.(Mercer)
Despite the gains to be made, Mercer’s stat shows we’re lagging behind on the uptake. So, why do so many organizations face a purpose challenge?
- Disconnect from the end result: the further down the pecking order an employee is positioned, the less aligned – or even aware – they tend to be of the overall objectives and direction of the business. Many will perform tactical roles at the direction of a line manager, without a full understanding of how it contributes to the end result.
- Dispersed workforces: operating in regional or even individual siloes outside of the center of an organization can cause a breakdown in communication, culture, and sense of connection to the organization and its big-picture goals.
- Non-purpose orientated organizations: if senior leadership is driven by financial gain or market share, doesn’t communicate or even create a mission statement and values, or simply doesn’t recognize or action the need for higher purpose among employees, it’s unlikely staff will take the initiative. This is something that needs to come top-down and be instilled into the culture of a business.
- Purpose is inauthentic: how many organizations have a set of values printed up on the office wall or hidden away on a website page that aren’t practiced, believed, or even relevant? Leaders can’t simply pluck a theoretical purpose from thin air and expect it to create change. It must resonate and be embraced by staff.
In many cases, our jobs do have a positive impact: but we’re too far removed from the end result to understand how we’ve contributed.
Think of the technician repairing a printer, who won’t ever see that once fixed, that device will print thousands of learning materials for underprivileged children who would otherwise have no access to them. Or that worker creating steel sheets on the factory floor, who may never learn that they form part of a US Air Force carrier, destined to serve 20 years at sea in the effort to protect civilians.
Happiness: the key to business success
“Where’s the value?”
If the ‘what’ of your organization fails to spark the imagination – whether that’s manufacturing straws or selling washing machines – it’s time to shift focus instead to the ‘how’, or even the ‘and then’.
1. Define your mission
They’re a powerful way to say a great deal in very few words. While some cynics argue the mission statement is a corporation box-ticking exercise, done correctly? It can be a powerful way of communicating organizational value and rallying staff behind a common purpose.
More than the generic, ‘we want to be best in class for our product’, a carefully-crafted statement defines future aspirations, identifies what sets your organization apart, and goes beyond what you do to cite why or what the impact of that is.
So, for us, it’s more than ‘we make intranet software’. Our mission is ‘to inform and connect every organization’s greatest asset: its people’. In that single statement, we can appreciate the value of our product; the gains to be made at both organizational and individual level; and where we collective place our value: that is, on people.
2. If not what, then how: identify your unique values and ways of working
Perhaps what you do isn’t the big selling point, but the way in which you different has a defined purpose or reason that staff can identify with.
One of my favorite examples for this is the global coffee chain, Starbucks. On the face of it, brewing coffee isn’t exactly unique or filled with purpose. A significant number of the world’s global population make this their first act every day. What Starbucks as a brand has managed to champion as its purpose is a commitment to environmental sustainability. It’s not what they do – brew coffee – but how they choose to do it.
With initiatives covering everything from ethical sourcing to recycling, diversity and community programs, they’ve established a corporate brand many are proud to be a part of. Every employee, whether they’re operating in head office or as a barista instore, receives comprehensive onboarding training covering these elements: ensuring they understand how the organization contributes to the greater good.
3. Share the big picture
For many organizations, their role and existence is just one component in a much larger picture, like the idea of the steel sheets in the aircraft carrier above. This is where the power of internal communication can – and should – be harnessed.
Following your company contributions down the funnel and engaging with customers or clients to understand how, or where, they utilize what you provide can be extremely powerful.
As businesses, we already understand this from a marketing perspective. We’ve been capturing case studies, testimonials and stories from our customers for decades. Taking the time to share these same stories internally can instil understanding of what purpose smaller roles serve and the value they bring.
In a story relayed to Harvard Business Review, Gerry Anderson – president of DTE Energy – took this approach following a deterioration in engagement and morale during the Great Recession of 2008:
When Anderson returned to DTE’s Detroit headquarters, he made a video that articulated his employees’ higher purpose. It showed DTE’s truck drivers, plant operators, corporate leaders, and many others on the job and described the impact of their work on the well-being of the community—the factory workers, teachers, and doctors who needed the energy DTE generated. The first group of professional employees to see the video gave it a standing ovation. When union members viewed it, some were moved to tears. Never before had their work been framed as a meaningful contribution to the greater good. The video brought to life DTE’s new statement of purpose: “We serve with our energy, the lifeblood of communities and the engine of progress.”
When employees are given the opportunity to step back from the minute and see the bigger picture, it can inspire.
Happiness: the key to business success
4. Align small successes to big goals
This one is particularly crucial for lower-level employees, whose day-to-day roles and responsibilities may not appear to correlate with bigger organizational successes. Simply put, if I don’t think my work has any bearing on the end result, what’s the point in doing it?
Let’s take achieving that allusive end-year profit goal. Your organization has made more money this year than ever before, management is buzzing, investors are cracking open the champagne. For your grass-root level employees, however, this probably has little impact or meaning.
So, align the smaller successes of your staff to that profit achievement: tell the story behind it.
Who generated the final sale? Attended the most meetings? Where did the biggest leads come from? Who contributed to designing the presentations, managing the most prominent projects?
Each has a role to play in the overall success of achieving that profit goal. Data is your friend: tap into the metrics behind the big picture, working backward to the foundations of your success. Then, tell your staff. When they understand how their small, seemingly insignificant successes have contributed to a much bigger outcome, it adds purpose.
5. Build a virtual culture to communicate and embed purpose
In an age of dispersed workforces, remote working and digital workplaces, we can no longer depend on a physical office or proximity to our colleagues to establish common culture. It’s something we have to work at creating. Every member of staff – regardless of where or how they work – should be able to contribute to, and feel a part of, the company culture.
Creating an ‘online workplace’ is now a must-have for the modern enterprise. Given the diverse range of digital tools and virtual spaces our staff use, however, this can be a challenge. The digital employee experience (DEX) is increasingly fragmented: communication is split between email, Slack, Microsoft Teams; our documents on Sharepoint, OneDrive, GoogleDrive, our workloads divided across different productivity tools.
Each tool has a defined function; none, however, are effective in building this allusive ‘virtual culture’. This is where an intranet can be powerfully effective.
An intranet has the capacity to showcase different content types including video, photos, events, blogs and newsfeeds; to bring people together to communicate or collaborate regardless of location or department; to provide a centralized area for company information including your mission, values, news and updates. It’s a place to share stories, the big picture, to celebrate your unique ways of working.
Collectively, this builds the foundation of a virtual culture and shapes the employee experience of work. With multi-device accessibility, every member of staff – from your CEO through to seasonal temps covering the festive season in-store – has the opportunity to connect with your purpose.
6. Make a positive impact on the lives of others
If there’s really no line to be drawn from your product or service to the benefit of someone’s life, don’t let that defeat you. Giving back to society as an organization can be just as powerful.
Foster altruism or philanthropy within your organization as part of a wider CSR policy. This can be through fundraisers to raise money for a cause you collectively believe in, providing protected volunteering time, or giving back to your local community – for example, through a mentorship program, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or participating in the local clean up. If your organization offers a product or service that can be put to use by others with limited means, consider a charitable giving campaign or discounted rates if applicable.
Encouraging employees to find greater meaning in their work life by contributing to people outside of their direct line of work is a surprisingly powerful tool to build a culture of purpose.
“I understand where I fit.”
I occasionally face the ‘purpose gap’ in my own role.
At the most simplistic level, the production of intranet software arguably doesn’t contribute to social good, change the world, save lives. As a Marketing Manager, it can be hard to argue that writing or putting up social media posts about intranets is making a difference to people’s lives.
However, I do believe that the work I do contributes to a bigger purpose.
I hear the stories from our customers and appreciate the value of our software. Last year I had the privilege of spending the day with War Child, a non-profit committed to protecting, educating and supporting children affected by war. I heard first-hand how they use Interact to connect with dispersed volunteers on the ground, to provide critical communications, share best practice, create a common culture. Our software supports them in helping those vulnerable children.
Our people-led approach means we don’t simply sell a piece of software; we sell supporting services, strategy, and solutions to problems. I play my part in articulating that advice and guidance, distributing information and stories that will help organizations, help their people thrive.
As an organization, we contribute regularly to charitable causes and local non-profits. We hold awareness days internally to promote better mental health and equality. I’ve personally organized more than one of these and also played a major role in defining our own company values.
Thanks to the culture of where I work, I am continually shown that my role – my reason for being here – goes far beyond writing blogs for the website or producing brochures for events. I have a bigger purpose. I understand where I fit in the bigger picture. It’s this knowledge that motivates me to give what I can to even the most mundane of tasks and commit to my work.
Can your employees say the same?