Companies that can draw a line between a specific role and how it contributes to the organization’s purpose have an advantage in hiring candidates looking for meaningful work. But how can an organization incorporate a sense of purpose into its employee value proposition without falling back on vague statements?
A 2018 study reported in HBR found that 9 out of 10 surveyed employees in the U.S. were willing to trade as much as 23% of their earnings for greater meaning at work. Yet according to McKinsey, executives and upper management are much more likely to find meaning or purpose at work while frontline managers and employees are missing out.
The 2021 investigation titled Help your employees find purpose – or watch them leaverevealed:
- 70% of employees said their sense of purpose is defined by their work.
- 85% of executives and upper management say they are living their purpose at work.
- Only 15% of frontline managers and frontline employees say they are living their purpose at work.
- Frontline workers were:
- 9x less likely to say they had a manager foster opportunities for them to work on purposeful projects.
- 3x less likely to say they can see a connection between their daily work and the organization’s purpose.
To me, that last statistic is key. Most of us have experienced at some stage the frustration of working on something that has little apparent meaning or purpose, which inevitably leads to disengagement. Sometimes the meaning is there, but whoever set the task has failed to communicate it; more often, the work itself lacks purpose.
David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, doesn’t mince words when he talks about pointless work. He identifies categories of meaningless work including people paid to make superiors feel important, people hired to patch flaws that should have been fixed, box-tickers, and managers who generate and assign unnecessary work to others.
It’s clear, then, that every effort should be made to ensure all roles in your organization have purpose and to articulate that link to candidates and employees. McKinsey notes that “when employees feel their purpose is aligned with the organization’s purpose, benefits expand to include stronger employee engagement, heightened loyalty, and a greater willingness to recommend the company to others”. Other benefits include better health, more resilience, and a higher likelihood to stay with the company.
Three levels of purpose
Every organization should have an enterprise-wide statement of purpose, but don’t rely on this alone to attract and retain talent. There are two further steps: firstly, to show candidates and employees how their day-to-day roles link and contribute to that purpose, and secondly, to be flexible enough for employees to realize their individual sense of purpose.
1. Organizational purpose
As McKinsey warns, purpose is more than just a poster on the wall or talk with no follow-through.
“… Emails to your team about corporate social responsibility efforts that seem disconnected from the team’s day-to-day experience will only inspire cynicism.”
A statement of purpose should reflect the reason the company was originally founded and its current role in society. It should be a living purpose; used every day as a “North Star” for people making decisions at all levels of the organization.
Communicate your organizational purpose to candidates by featuring it on your website career page, including a short paragraph about purpose in your job ads, and create videos showing your team talking about finding purpose in their roles.
2. Role-level purpose
Role-level purpose describes how people’s day-to-day work has meaning and connects with the organization’s overall purpose.
For example, knowing that the work you are doing on supply-chain sustainability will ultimately help fight climate change creates a powerful sense of purpose, and is a great motivator.
Realistically, not every task will feel meaningful – it can be hard to find a sense of purpose in repetitive, uninteresting work like manual data entry. But managers should be alert for signs of disengagement and ensure they always communicate the reason why every task is important. Uninspiring work should be balanced with purposeful projects to keep workers engaged
3. Individual purpose
Individual purpose is a complex and multilayered topic because every individual’s purpose is different. For one person, it might be to find a great work-life balance, while another employee’s purpose may be to spend as much time as possible on volunteer work.
In an exploration of the link between company and individual purpose, Korn Ferry explains:
“By enabling individuals to pursue their own purpose alongside the organization’s purpose, companies attract people who are far more engaged. If individual purpose is aligned and supported by an organization, then individuals are more likely to authentically bring their whole selves to work.”
A one-size-fits-all approach to people management will not work in this respect. Aligning to individual purposes means personalized roles, rewards, development, and more. It takes work and commitment, but may ultimately be the differentiator that helps you attract purpose-driven talent to your business.