Time to get purposeful about purpose: 10 guidelines to connect employees to purpose

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

PURPOSE. It’s a loaded word. Both for corporations and individuals. And while today’s focus on purpose makes us think it’s a new concept, it’s not. For centuries, spiritualists, existentialists, religious scholars and the like have explored the purpose and meaning of life. Management guru Peter Drucker once said, “The number of people who are really motivated by money is very small. Most people need to feel that they are here for a purpose, and unless an organization can connect to this need to leave something behind that makes this a better world, or at least a different one, it won’t be successful over time.”

When we think about our desire to connect and the basic human need to belong to something larger in light of the angst and, for many, the physical separation with work that the global pandemic has created, the Great Resignation, Great Reshuffle — or whatever you personally label it — really is no surprise. Sheltering in place gave society a moment for pause. And as it did many people across the globe began to recognize we needed a new narrative for success: one that goes beyond money and productivity and includes purpose, well-being and belonging. One that brings mindfulness and intentionality out of the cloister and into our daily routines.

Purpose makes work a valuable part of life — not an enemy

The promise of the digital landscape, big data and AI was transformational for both people and business. Yet practically these “advancements” have made work more transactional and less relational. Add in Zoom, Teams, Webex and Google Meetings as our primary forms of personal interaction and it’s easy to understand why so many people do not associate or have stopped associating work with community, satisfaction and validation, more or less belonging, happiness and fulfillment.

Since the industrial age, work has been positioned as the enemy of life. Consider the term work-life balance. It positions work as something apart from life. Yet, work is a part of life–a critical element that brings people a sense of achievement and fulfillment when it has meaning. If we reframe balance as work (or professional) and personal life balance or, better yet, life balance, the message shifts and positions work as a channel for living our purpose. A way to define and actualize who we are alongside our personal lives.

Connecting with purpose at work connects us with our personal value

To engage employees, a company must first clarify its higher raison d’être, or reason for being, and know why it exists beyond making money. When effective brand purpose communicates how a company creates or adds value to society every day. It’s rooted in what a business does and is also broad enough to encompasses a social mission. Increased urgency around climate change and the Pandora’s box the global pandemic has opened around social justice and inequity have made connecting employees to purpose a very real — and even tangible — problem for business. One that many attribute as the primary cause of the Great Recession.

Communicating how a company acts in service to its customers, employees, investors, other stakeholders, the environment and society writ large is challenging. And cultivating employee well-being by connecting people to this higher order corporate purpose can be even more difficult. Especially given the micro traumas people have been experiencing during the global pandemic. While we most often think of trauma as a big event, we also can be traumatized by something as seemingly insignificant as repeatedly being told we’re not doing something correctly, or we’re dreaming too big. I say this not in any way to downplay horrific trauma. But rather to highlight that the fear, frustration and disruption we’ve all faced over the past two years has caused many people to deeply question their lifestyles, their value and much more — and thereby experience some form of micro-, if not macro, trauma.

While brand purpose and the way executive leadership demonstrates this in their behaviors can motivate, engage and influence employees, how each person actualizes their individual purpose at work (or not) is just that — individual. Personal. Some of us seek to have impact at the societal level, others at an organizational, and still others at an individual, one-on-one level. Having some insight into employees’ individual purposes and the level at which they look to make a difference can help guide career advancement/choices as well as enable brands to offer out-of-work opportunities such as volunteer placements, secondments, and more to help people actualize their personal purposes in different ways on the job.

Importantly, despite what many models about purpose at work proclaim, our client work consistently has confirmed it’s essential to accept that many people are content with their job simply being a source of income. It’s not that these people haven’t defined their personal purpose — it’s that they fulfill this in their personal life, not their work life. And equally as important, this doesn’t indicate that they don’t need to gain a sense of accomplishment and achievement while at work — or feel that the company they work for exists for a reason beyond earning money….

Connection and purpose at work foster well-being

Whether a greater sense of purpose — in other words meaning — comes from work, our family, volunteering, a side-gig or something else, it has many benefits. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, has developed an interesting framework for well-being that focuses on four pillars of a healthy mind. Decades of research have demonstrated that Awareness, Insight, Connection and Purpose foster our well-being. While each of these to varying degrees can be gained at work, Connection and Purpose are the most relevant.

Davidson defines Connection as a feeling of care and kinship toward other people, promoting supportive relationships and supportive interactions. Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are all about this. And I strongly believe and have seen that when people connect at work through shared purpose, it’s often easier for them to let go of unconscious biases and see people for who they are inside, rather than outside. Even as most of the reporting statistics for DEI center on gender, race, sexual orientation and other demographics, I believe it’s essential to remember that hiring and crafting teams of like-minded people who look different from one another may still promote validation. And facilitating a genuinely supportive and compassionate environment that leads to measured risk-taking, greater productivity and excellence is not a check the box exercise. It requires intentionality and human over artificial intelligence. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that agencies and other creative businesses whose long-term success are inherently dependent on diversity of thought began reflecting on this in the media at the start of the new year.

Further, Davidson defines Purpose as being clear about your core values and deeper motivation and applying them in your daily life. While volunteer days, cause marketing and philanthropic programs may make people feel better about their employer, linking the mundane activities of day-to-day tasks with a meaningful value or motivation is the key to connecting employees to organizational purpose — even those who are there primarily because of their paycheck. time and time again I’ve seen that the strongest brands are built from the ground up — when employees are united and inspired by their daily jobs, not organized social activities or benefits.

Promoting holistic well-being at work

As the ongoing pandemic has revealed systemic weaknesses, I believe the changes we have been going through promise to unfold a workplace that promotes holistic wellness and brings more meaning to why we go to work every day through connecting our individual, personal purpose to our employer’s in some way. Regardless of whether you’re commuting to an office, sitting at your dining room table, working in a restaurant or on the factory floor.

Although this won’t happen overnight, it should help direct brands moving forward, in the same way organizational purpose is should act as a benchmark for product development, employee engagement, stakeholder relations, sustainability and operational policies and processes. Here are 10 guidelines we use to help brands successfully connect employees to purpose:

1. Confirm that your purpose is genuinely tied to your business value proposition, clearly articulating the reason you exist at the highest level. When purpose primarily is focused on a social mission, employee engagement program, reputation management, cause marketing campaign or the like it may create a lift in engagement but it won’t cultivate long-term fulfillment. And it can lead to inconsistent policies and behaviors, employee cynicism and even reputational damage. (Primer on clarifying purpose as an organizing principle for your brand and business.)

2. Avoid the temptation to turn purpose into a tagline. To cultivate a sense of belonging purpose must be more than words on a page. Empower employees to discover their own sense of purpose and meaning through workshops, online programs etc. and find the intersection between their personal purpose and the company’s raison d’être. Offer employees a place on their company profile to share what the company purpose means to them personally.

3. Envision your best workplace and rewrite your narrative. Your cultural narrative should reflect your long-term ambition and the ideal culture that will support achieving your purpose. This story should come from the heart (in other words, ring sincere) and reflect a state of being whole (a definition of integrity that is often overlooked). While the spotlight has been placed on “authentic” narratives, social media has made us all aware that authenticity can be curated and even contrived. Sincerity and integrity however, cannot. (Guidelines for rewriting your narrative.)

4. Activate middle management. Building an inspired middle management team is one of the overlooked keys to success in connecting employees to purpose. Middle managers who openly communicate their personal purpose to their teams and discuss how it links to their work life, model vulnerability that cultivates inclusion and belonging.

5. Enlist untapped evangelists. Across all levels of an organization lies a pool of often untapped evangelists who are easy to identify and a great resource to inspire cultural change and connection to purpose. Consider networking them through a Purpose Council that builds employee teams focused on pioneering purpose efforts within their departments and across the organization.

6. Ensure you satisfy foundational factors for good corporate culture as you connect employees to purpose. Attributes such as treating employees with respect and as individuals; having supportive leaders who offer encouragement and live the company’s values across all their actions; offering formal and informal learning and development opportunities; and embracing transparency in communications.

7. Adapt well-being into a performance indicator. As well-being morphs into a measure of success at work it must be seen as more than a healthcare/benefits tool. Consider ways to tie your purpose and values to employee well-being and incorporate these elements into individual performance evaluations as well as brand scorecards. After all, that which is measured is managed and improved.

And for organizations further along their purpose journey 3 additional areas to consider….

8. Include identifying and understanding personal purpose — and how individual employees can connect with the brand’s purpose — as part of employee development. An awareness of someone’s personal purpose — and the level at which they will feel fulfilled having impact (societal, organizational, individual) can help guide career development and identify the fit and misfit of a specific role early on. Workshops to connect team members to their team’s and/or organization’s purpose are a great way to connect people to purpose, and there are many software programs available to do this in an easier to scale and less bespoke manner.

9. Help employees balance their professional and personal lives and ensure they have time to work on all aspects of their life. Consider the term work-life balance, which in many ways positions work as something outside our life. An enemy of life, for many. Yet our professional lives are a part of daily life–a critical aspect that can bring a sense of achievement and fulfillment when it our jobs have meaning. Imagine reframing work-life balance as life balance and helping employees flow seamlessly through the day.

Recent research has shown asynchronous work schedules are successful globally, so what about deploying them locally. And what if employees were trusted to take a two-hour break during the workday to run errands, manage childcare issues, etc. and then return to work, ending the 8-hour work-day 2 hours later. Job-sharing is another an option, especially for mothers. Other easier to scale ideas that acknowledge the realities of modern lives include health and well-being apps, educational resources for working parents on managing home schooling or people caring for elderly parents, Employee Resource Groups for Working Parents, Single Parents, etc., and wider ranging knowledge libraries and services that help employees juggle work with personal responsibilities.

10. Offer Social Learning Journeys for people working in sustainability, supply chain, cause marketing and philanthropy (and potentially all employees interested in systems change aligning operations w/purpose). When employees first-hand experience suppliers and/or communities you support through philanthropic and related initiatives bridges of understanding are built through a wider systems perspective. Ideating alongside the people who are part of your ecosystem leverages local knowledge and gives communities agency to help develop solutions to the challenges that impact them and the sustainability of your business operations.

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Early pioneer Brand Citizenship/Purpose. Author DO GOOD. 2020 Superbrands Branding Leader. 2018 Trust Across America Top Thought Leader. Founder Onesixtyfourth.

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Anne Bahr Thompson

Anne Bahr Thompson

Early pioneer Brand Citizenship/Purpose. Author DO GOOD. 2020 Superbrands Branding Leader. 2018 Trust Across America Top Thought Leader. Founder Onesixtyfourth.

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