Research by KPMG discovered a strong correlation between leaders who actively communicate purpose and their team engagement and morale. They found people are three times more likely to consider leaving a company when leaders don’t discuss purpose, with double the turnover rate. These results were consistent across all generations.
Unsurprisingly, increased engagement also goes hand-in-hand with better business performance. Professor of Global Business Raj Sisodia found purpose-led companies outperformed the S&P 500 by ten times the financial returns between 1996 and 2011.
For leaders, purpose is fundamental to a great employee experience — building the crucial connections between people, their work, and the organisation. But to define and articulate it effectively requires an understanding of how humans experience meaning. Throughout history there have been numerous theories, typically seeking a single, collective purpose, and highly influenced by the social themes of the time.
Today, the post-postmodern understanding of meaning is comfortably ambiguous. It’s widely accepted that purpose is a narrative humans are inherently compelled to derive and embody. Simply: our purpose in life is whatever we make it.
Family; religion; conservation; exploration; creativity; work — whatever it is, we hold an unwavering belief we exist on earth to do this one thing. It’s a reason to live; our enduring legacy — making it a fundamental part of our identity.
Wherever we individually find meaning, it tends to be bigger than ourselves. We talk about existing to serve the greater or higher purpose, serving the community, providing for our family, standing up for the under-represented, or saving the world. We share information, but we evangelise purpose. And the more we feel our contribution matters in the wider context, the more fervent our belief. It’s no surprise then, that purpose plays such a critical role in the performance of individuals, teams, and organisations.
Not big necessarily, but meaningful
Purpose doesn’t need to be monumental, it just needs to be meaningful. What are we working together to achieve? Does it make a difference? Is it worthy work for a worthwhile cause? These are the considerations that motivate people over the pursuit of profit. And when comparing two jobs with similar wages, the one with greater purpose will have greater appeal. Research also shows we’re more inherently motivated when we’re aware our work helps others.
Psychologist Adam Grant conducted a study in which university students who’d received scholarships spoke to operators from the call centre which had raised the funds. A month later, operators were spending 142 per cent more time on the phone with a revenue increase of 171 per cent. Simply hearing the impact of their work was enough to make a massive difference.
Never shy from challenging
The common fear when articulating purpose is that it will seem unachievable or unrealistic. As a result, it tends to be watered down until comfortably tepid. But this isn’t the time to be realistic — it’s an opportunity to be idealistic. A study by psychologist Dan Ariely found the more effort we invest, the more pride we feel. He had participants follow origami instructions, and on completion, the builders, as well as a group of observers, were asked how much they’d pay for it. He then repeated the process, this time without instructions.
Congruent with the ownership effect, the builders valued their initial work at five times the amount as the objective observers. However, in the instance without instructions, the difference was even more exaggerated. Despite a worse result, people valued their work more when it was challenging.
There is no one-size-fits-all
So how do we get everyone to adopt our purpose? Quite simply: we can’t. Just as we all have our own individual purpose in life, not everyone seeks the same meaning in their work. And that’s ok. All that matters is our purpose resonates with the people who matter, and inspires them to strive towards it.
Everything drives the narrative
Like any good narrative, everything should exist to support the story. Purpose should be singular and coherent, filtering from vision statement, mission, values and behaviours, to strategy, structures and the way things work.
If the vision describes a certain outcome, but leaders’ actions contradict it — belief wavers. If the mission involves innovation and people are hampered by clunky technology — conviction falters. It isn’t about perfection, it’s about congruence in the things that matter.
Emotions also play a significant role. Purpose isn’t driven by logic, otherwise we wouldn’t see people chain themselves in front of bulldozers or pass up six-figure executive wages to work with people they like doing jobs they love. Reason only takes us so far, it’s emotion that compels us to commit everything.
Support purpose with structure
While purpose provides the evocation, we need to support it with structure to help people work towards it. Communication is a crucial component. KPMG’s findings on team engagement and morale didn’t relate to organisations that had purpose, it related to organisations where leaders communicated purpose.
People need to know the purpose — the vision and mission — understand it, and be able to easily articulate it to others. However, it’s just as important they know the behaviours required to get there, what it looks like to achieve it, and the individual and collective reward.
Numerous studies on motivation show the value of making people’s efforts visible. We don’t necessarily need massive advances to stay motivated, but tracking progress against our objective and sharing it regularly helps people feel their work is making a difference.
Jen Jackson is founder and CEO of award-winning employee experience company Everyday Massive, speaker, and author of How to Speak Human (Wiley, 2018). She works with forward-thinking leaders to transform the employee experience — increasing connection, improving communication, and building capability in leaders and teams. Find out more at www.everydaymassive.com