On purpose: What employees want more than anything else, and four ways to give it to them

Published 4/25/2022

Around the world, employees say they feel “disengaged”, and the reasons for this are no mystery. As McKinsey puts it, “they are agitating for decisions and behaviours that they can be proud to stand behind, and gravitate toward companies that have a clear, unequivocal, and positive impact on the world”. They want to not just be employed, but to be engaged.

And the key to engagement? Purpose.

While all organisations recognise the benefits of making their customers happy, the best of them are also focusing on the experience of employees. X is Y Ways of Working Designer, Victoria, helps clients focus on the link between employee experience and corporate purpose, and how businesses can nurture that link in an authentic way. Redesigning your employee experience so that it aligns with the purpose of the business is one of the most significant steps you can take. Like the guy with the mop at NASA who told Kennedy he was helping to put a man on the moon, your employees will work harder and happier if they feel connected with your organisation's purpose.

With the rise of social enterprises blurring the line between NFPs and commercial businesses, there are more and more organisations willing to offer purpose along with the pay check. If you’re serious about attracting and retaining top talent, you’re going to have to compete on those terms.

What is “purpose”?

Put simply, it’s a company’s goals around social, environmental and economic impact, beyond simple profit and loss. It’s a stakeholder approach rather than a shareholder approach, and recognises that businesses have responsibilities as well as rights - for moral reasons, sure, but for self-interest too: the things you’re investing in are tomorrow’s customers, employees and resources.

For example, though a retail bank might have a broad purpose like “help New Zealanders thrive”, it would express that purpose in various ways: through financial literacy, say, in the social sphere, an earth-friendly investment policy in the environmental sphere, and helping to grow and foster small businesses in the economic sphere. As you can see, this stuff is much more than warm, fuzzy charity work - it’s an aligned, strategic approach to purpose that recognises the role business (not just Government and community) can play in strengthening society.

But when it comes to engaging employees, that’s not enough. Your business purpose must also align with the values of your employees, and that’s where the real work begins. It doesn’t mean your social, environmental and economic goals must exactly mirror the beliefs of the individuals who work for you, but the two must be in dialogue. When you get that right, the purpose of the business becomes intrinsic for your employees - you don’t have to convince them of it, because they’re living it.

All of this makes it crucial that business leaders go beyond satisfaction surveys and suggestion boxes and bring engagement into the purpose space. Successful organisations can no longer expect individual employees to fit into a system. Instead, they must transform the system to fit their employees. They must take what’s fashionably called a “design approach” but is really just common sense: putting humans at the centre of decisions that affect humans. 

This is particularly important when it comes to purpose - employees not only help define what matters to the business (by telling you what matters to them), but their personal experiences provide expertise on how to get there - expertise which is unavailable to an organisation that works from the top-down.

Here are four ways to get it right

  • Find out what your employees care about. Where do they derive meaning? What are their aspirations? What are the things that keep them up at night? Ask them, make sense of what you learn, then identify actionable insights and opportunities for impact. Above all, make sure that you have the ability to respond to what you hear in an appropriate way - they need to see your intent, and to believe it.

  • Work together and co-create ways in which the organisational purpose will connect meaningfully with employees. Bring them into the design process and offer them the tools for change. 

  • Recognise that failure is part of the plan. Test the ideas, allow for failure and try again. This means making peace with the idea of continuous learning through monitoring and evaluation

  • Operate in good faith. You’ll do irreparable damage to engagement if your approach to purpose doesn’t ring true. You have to mean it, and look like you mean it, then act like you said you would act.

Achieving a truly purpose-driven culture requires dialogue, ongoing listening and an openness to act on what you hear. By energising employees and company culture with the same purpose, you’ll make your business an irresistible place to do meaningful work.

Are you curious about what it could take to cultivate a more purpose-driven culture in your workplace? Reach out for a free discovery call via the link below.

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