Are you providing your employees with purpose?
- 14 Jun 2021
- Leadership in Business
Why do your employees come to work (virtually, or in person)? The easy answer is, of course ‘to earn a living’. But is money really what gets people up in the morning enthusiastic and ready to do good work – or do we as humans need a higher purpose? And if we do, are you as an employer providing it?
Why more money doesn’t drive performance
We all want to know we’re earning enough to cover our needs. But the idea that further rewards consistently drive better performance hasn’t survived scientific analysis.
In fact, studies show that the only scenario in which a reward-based system tends to work well is when tasks are straightforward and require only simple mechanical skill sets. Where tasks require cognitive skills, bigger financial rewards instead decrease performance.
The theory is that a concrete incentive helps us narrow our focus and concentrate on the immediate objective. This is great when it comes to assembling widgets. But a tight focus like this is the last thing you need when a task requires creative and conceptual thinking.
If your people aren’t motivated by money, then, what can you do to encourage them to want to come to work and give their best while they’re there?
A big part of the answer is purpose.
How purpose helps
2020 McKinsey research found that about 70% of people define their purpose through work, with millennials even more likely to do so. It makes sense – if we’re going to spend a third of our waking hours doing something, we’re going to feel better about it if what we’re doing is meaningful.
When we do something for a purpose that matters to us, we feel energised and committed. We get stuff done, and we do it well. Translate that across a workforce, and the benefits can be dramatic. People care about what happens, they are motivated to engage fully, and they feel rewarded by doing so.
What counts as purpose?
Purpose can be hard to define. It’s personal - you can’t dictate to your people what they should care about. It’s helpful to break the concept down into three areas: why your organisation exists, the way you operate, and the role of individual purpose.
Organisational purpose: why your organisation exists
Does your organisation exist to provide products or services designed directly to make the world a better place?
Increasingly, people want to be contributing to something they can feel passionate about and that they see as a force for good. Profit’s important: it’s what pays taxes, shares wealth, funds research and investment and grows businesses – but the push for profit alone isn’t enough to give employees purpose. Where businesses provide a wider purpose, people who share that purpose will be a natural fit for the organisation.
This doesn’t mean you necessarily need to be developing Covid vaccines, feeding the hungry or dredging the oceans for plastic. Even if your offer is exciting and meaningful only in a particular niche, you can still build a sense of purpose around it that will help attract and retain staff.
Whether or not your products or services are in themselves likely to excite passion, the way you operate can also give employees a shared sense of purpose.
Solid corporate social responsibility (CSR) action - rather than just talk - is key. If you make photocopiers, for example, and you’re reducing the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process and managing your supply chain for positive impact, then you’re creating a positive purpose for your organisation.
Individual purpose; understanding individual drivers
Organisational purpose is often presented as the holy grail: simply employ people whose values and goals match those of the organisation, and you’ll transform performance and race ahead of the competition.
It’s more complicated than that.
Yes, winning buy-in to organisational level purpose is important. But you’ll see the greatest engagement and commitment from people who also feel fulfilled at an individual level by their specific job role.
Imagine that you’re aligned with your organisation’s overall purpose. You’re fired up after an inspiring project meeting where the ideas were flying, and you can’t wait to get started. How quickly will that passion disappear if next morning you’re back to day-to-day tasks you find dull and tedious?
So, it’s essential to understand what gives people individual purpose in their work; to identify what makes them happy. Could it be mentoring junior employees? Helping customers solve problems? Using technical skills to streamline a business process?
Employers who get the best from their people are those who take the time to understand individuals and refine roles wherever possible to give the best fit.
Organisational and individual purpose together: the winning combination
As an employer, you’ll know you are genuinely giving employees purpose when you are tackling the concept at both an organisational and individual level.
At an organisational level, you have clear and worthwhile goals that give people confidence their efforts are contributing to something that matters. At the individual level, you’re giving people day-to-day tasks they find rewarding.
Bring the two together successfully, and you’ve got a winning combination that brings out the best in everyone and helps both individuals and businesses thrive.
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