Observations by Anne Bahr Thompson

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 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 fear and, for many, the physical separation with work that the global pandemic has created, the Great Resignation – 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 part of life, not the enemy of life

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 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, let alone 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 think of balance as work and personal life balance or life balance, the message is changed with work positioned as a channel for living 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 done well brand purpose communicates how a company creates or adds value to society. It’s rooted in what a business does and is broad enough to encompasses a social mission. Increased urgency around climate change and an amplified call for social justice and inequity have made connecting employees to purpose a very real, tangible problem for business. One that many attribute as the primary cause of the Great Resignation.

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. The intent here is not in any way to downplay horrific trauma, but rather highlight that fear and disruption of daily routines have caused most people to question how they live, their value and more – and thereby experience some form of micro, if not macro, trauma as a result of COVID. While we most often think of trauma as a big event, trauma also can be something as seemingly insignificant as repeatedly being told we’re not doing something correctly, or we’re dreaming too big or our work adds no value.

While brand purpose and the way leadership lives this can motivate, engage and influence employees, how each employee actualizes their individual purpose at work is personal. And so it’s important for employers acknowledge not everyone is motivated by the same things at work—and that a paying job may not be the primary vehicle for fulfilling personal purpose. Some people seek to have impact at the societal level, others at an organizational level, and still others at a one-on-one level. Having some insight into employees’ individual purposes and the level at which they look to make a difference can help brands guide career advancement/choices and offer out-of-work opportunities that help people actualize their personal purposes in different ways on the job.

Importantly, despite what many models about purpose at work say, our client work has confirmed it’s also essential to accept that some 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. Importantly, however, this doesn’t mean 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 beyond earning money.

Connection and purpose at work foster well-being

Whether a greater sense of purpose – or 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 a 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 we 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 a public persona. Even as most of the reporting statistics for DEI center on gender, race, sexual orientation and other demographics, it’s essential to remember that hiring and crafting teams of like-minded people who look different from one another may still promote validation. 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 have been reflecting on this in the media.

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.

Here are 7 areas we focus on when helping clients 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.
  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.
  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.