Talent Management
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Employees with a sense of purpose offer more to the organization

By Zach Mercurio

It’s simple: When people feel better about their work, they do better work. And worldwide research finds one of the best ways to inspire pride in work is by connecting people to a bigger purpose.

The philosopher Frederich Nietzche wrote, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

When employees have a clear sense of why their job exists – beyond what they do or what they get for what they do – they thrive. But while there is much written about the clear power of purpose, strategies for human resources leaders to instill it are not as clear.

Here are three research-backed ways HR leaders can start building a purposeful and inspired organizational culture.

1. Make sure the organization’s purpose is clear

This seems obvious, but it’s one of the biggest barriers to purposeful work.

After studying thousands of managers ranging from General Electric to the Girl Scouts, Authentic Leadership Institute president Nick Craig and Harvard professor Scott Snook found that fewer than 20 per cent of organizational leaders have a strong sense of purpose.

If the purpose of the work isn’t clear to leaders in the organization, it won’t be clear (or inspiring) to employees. Worse yet, when the purpose isn’t clear throughout the organization, research finds it’s no more beneficial than any other motivation tactic.

To start, answer this question: Beyond what the organization does or what the organization gets for what it does, why does the organization exist?

The answer is its purpose.

Before using purpose to inspire others, spend time making sure it’s clear to leaders, managers and supervisors. One way to see if the purpose is clear is to test it with employees. Does it resonate with them? How would they describe it? Is it emotionally compelling?

Making sure to involve employees at all levels in developing purpose clarity is critical.

2. Before telling people what to do, show them why it matters

A group of supply chain mangers was recently asked, “Why does your job exist?”

A women in the back of the room raised her hand and said, “I found out why last month. I got diagnosed with cancer and was in an MRI machine. I looked up and realized we distribute a widget in that model. I realized my job existed all this time to save my own life.”

Talk about an antidote to disengagement. The group was instantly more energized, creative and passionate. When people can see that their work matters to another person, they are more motivated.

Yet, organizations typically onboard and train people in their jobs by telling them what to do and how to do it. Instead, before telling anyone what to do or how to do it, show them why it matters. When leaders can “show purpose,” it taps into employees’ sense of empathy, which activates emotion.

Emotion is what commits people to their work. Take a look at recruitment, onboarding and training programs in the organization: When and how are employees shown why the work matters?

One high-impact tip is to make sure to bring in beneficiaries of the work – the customers or users – to tell their stories of how the product or service impacts their own lives.  Research finds that just five minutes with someone who benefits from the work can boost motivation and fulfillment.

3. Reward other-centered behaviours

Organizational culture is ultimately characterized by what types of behaviours are incentivized. To build a purposeful organization, leaders need to reward purposeful behaviour.

Because purpose is “a reason for existence,” it is other-centered by default. That is its power. Often, organizations reward self-serving behaviours by attaching them to self-serving rewards. By solely rewarding personal performance with incentives like commissions, perks and promotions, leaders create a self-serving culture.

But when leaders attach rewards to things like helpfulness, selflessness or dedication to the purpose, people inevitably do more of those things. Are rewards systems set up to reward self-serving behaviours or other-centered behaviours?

When people are more purposeful, they do better work – and results will follow. 

Zach Mercurio is an international speaker, trainer and purpose and meaningful work consultant. His latest book is called The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose.

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