How to help employees find purpose

Written by
Changeboard Team

02 Mar 2011

02 Mar 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Sustainable approach to employee engagement

According to the latest research from Hay Group, British workers are the most disengaged and the second most frustrated in Western Europe. Similarly, a survey by Aon last month found that almost half of employees would leave if they could find another job. And the CIPD reports that less than a third of staff trust their leaders to act in their best interests. 

The mantra of employee engagement is that an unengaged workforce is also a low performing one. But given recent events, it’s not surprising that large sections of the workforce lack genuine engagement and commitment and are buckling down simply pleased to have a job. 

Raising levels of employee performance

One of the responses to this has been to encourage employees to find meaning and purpose through their work. The CIPD’s Shaping the Future research programme, for example, describes effective engagement as being ‘the extent to which organisations [are] able to engender a sense of shared purpose among their employees’ and outlines the importance of ‘employees developing an emotional connection to their organisation’s purpose, internalising it and practising it in their daily routines’. 

Others are more outspoken, arguing that the key to raising levels of employee performance is to provide ‘meaning for individuals beyond making money which in turn unlocks discretionary effort’  or that employers need to strike a new contract with their people in which they say, ‘We’ll make your job (and life) more meaningful. You give us your hearts and minds’.

Sustainable business or failure and derailment?

Experience – as well as our research – shows that if it’s done effectively, employees start to believe their outlook and interests are identical to those of the organisation.

Why should this be a problem you might ask? Well, if you are unable to distinguish between your own outlook and interests and that of the organisation for which you work, you tend to pursue your goals regardless, without bothering too much about your responsibility for others or what the outcomes of your actions might mean for them. When you put this beside the behaviour of the investment bankers that precipitated the global financial crisis as well as, previously, those in Enron and Andersen, you begin to get the picture.

Our research illuminated the dynamics in the relationship between leaders and their organisations that can either lead towards long term, sustainable success or business failure and derailment. We found there was a symbiotic relationship between work addicted, highly absorptive corporate cultures and those whom the organisation regarded as its brightest and best.

A large proportion of these rising young stars had little sense of their own purpose and identity. The organisation created an environment in which they could get lost in the process of work, using it as a fix to get ahead, be successful, and avoid feeling. Providing them with a purpose to which they could align their careers had the effect of creating work-addicted, corporate careerists rather than leaders – with little sense of self.

It also created a fertile environment for job burnout to occur because it reinforced the unhealthy, co-dependent relationship they had with their work, in which the story of the organisation and their role within it had become their story.

Supporting your employees

Meaning and purpose have to be satisfied at an individual level and cannot either practically or ethically be satisfied at a collective one. Using work as a substitute for identity – for meaning and purpose in one’s life – eventually leads to anomie, where employees have no rooted sense of self or character, over-accommodate themselves to others and lose their moral compass and sense of purpose.

So if supplying employees with ready made purpose is unethical and unsustainable at a human as well as business level, what’s the alternative for the enlightened organisation looking to sustainably engage its workforce?

We believe it is to support employees in finding their own purpose and exploring how this relates to the organisation’s purpose. In essence we are proposing a transparent process in which employees explicitly negotiate the relationship between their own sense of personal purpose and that of the organisation.

In practice this means finding the appropriate forum for employees to play an active, conscious role in determining how they engage with their organisation.

Leadership and other development programmes provide an environment in which this ‘negotiated engagement’ can be done safely and as part of an overall learning agenda. Having explored the organisation’s purpose and dominant cultural norms, get programme participants to define to which aspects do they feel committed? Which aspects do they simply accept – to which they do not feel committed, but equally they do not feel strongly enough about to change? And finally, which aspects do they seek to change?

Emotional connection between employee and employer

We believe that sustainable organisation performance is dependent on there being sufficient congruence between employees’ personal purpose and the shared purpose of the organisation. In order for employees to develop an emotional connection to that shared purpose, it is necessary for an employee’s personal purpose to be allowed to flourish, and thus to make human life within the organisation sustainable.

The employee as powerful agent in relationship with the organisation is one of the key hallmarks of what we call ‘sustainable engagement’. It challenges old thinking about mangers decreeing and employees implementing, and makes the health of the relationship between the organisation and the individual employee central to organisation performance.

Most of all, it enables a move from authoritarian to participative cultures, fostering a more distributed model of leadership and a more widely shared sense of responsibility and ethical practice in our corporations.