Why employees don’t care about your purpose

And what to do about it

It seems we simply can’t get enough of purpose within the world of work right now.

Take business leaders. In a survey conducted last year by ABA, 77% of leaders saw their business as ‘purpose-led’, with 2 in 3 believing that purpose offered them a competitive edge.

Employees seem similarly enamoured. A recent McKinsey survey revealed 70% of employees believe their sense of purpose is defined by their work. Add to that the growing body of evidence that employees increasingly expect their employer to have a clearly defined purpose and set of values that aligns with their own, and it would seem the future is bright and purpose-filled.

The reality? Employees often care less about the organisation’s purpose than leaders want to admit.

As an agency that puts purpose to work within organisations of different shapes and sizes, we’ve noticed a worrying trend. A ‘purpose gap’ of sorts has opened between employer and employee, where publicly both proclaim that purpose matters but where employees privately admit they still haven’t found what they’re looking for.

So where do companies often get it wrong, and how can they plug the gap (and prevent it from widening)? Any solution starts with an honest appraisal of the problem – the traps that business leaders are prone to falling into when it comes to purpose.

Pretend purpose is corporate (when in fact it’s always personal)

An organisation’s purpose and an individual’s purpose are clearly not one and the same. Employees are looking for a sense of meaning and significance in life, and want their work to play an important part in that. Ultimately, any interest in the company’s purpose and desire to positively impact the world is going to be based on that personal sense of purpose.

But most companies aren’t comfortable with a personal conversation around purpose. It’s messy, emotive and by nature subjective (and what if asking the question leaves some of your best employees wondering if their purpose could best be fulfilled somewhere else?). The result is a gap between what employees desire and what they experience. That same McKinsey survey identified only 15% of frontline managers and staff felt they were living their purpose at work. The reason? Leaders only ever want to talk about corporate purpose – but that only matters to staff if they can see how it ties into their personal purpose.

The solution to this impasse is for a different sort of conversation to emerge within organisations. It involves shifting the onus away from the company (“How can you get behind our corporate purpose?”) and towards the employee (“How can we support you in your personal purpose?”). The more aligned the company’s purpose and values are with the employees, the more engaged they will be. But sometimes for that to happen, it requires a little more listening and a little less talking.

Frame purpose as lofty (instead of grounding it in the day-to-day)

In our experience, purpose that is credible and meaningful doesn’t tend trickle down from the top so much as bubble up to the surface. Yet a top-down approach often marks how purpose is both arrived at (think consultants locked in a room with the C-suite) and communicated (think PR statement from the CEO). What’s more, this approach often sets the tone for how purpose is rolled out and embedded within the organisation.

As one leader of a large financial services company recently admitted on a call: “We have come out saying ‘we are a purpose-led company’, and we have a clear purpose statement. But I think most employees just shrug their shoulders and get back to doing their job. It doesn’t really make any difference to them in the day-to-day.”

Organisations often try and square the circle by offering noble things such as matched donations, volunteer leave, and purposeful gifts. But whilst these are undoubtedly good practices, in and of themselves they do little to draw staff into the purpose of the company. Cracking that nut involves a change of mindset – a different approach that is less ‘closed shop’ and more ‘open source’.

Examples of this are where employees are invited to feedback on how the company is delivering on its commitments to doing business responsibly. Where town hall forums are set up for employees to put forward their own ideas and perspective. Where departments are invited to develop ‘purpose plans’ which look to ground the big aspirations within the everyday mechanics of the organisation.

Fail to deliver on the basics (before claiming to change the world)

Amidst all the buzz around purpose, and the hype around its potential to supercharge engagement, it can be tempting to view purpose as something of a panacea for employee happiness. A quick glance at recent headlines should dispel that myth.

Whether it’s employees at BrewDog writing an open letter complaining of the “culture of fear” within its factories, or Lush declaring they are committed to ‘doing good business’ whilst at the same time underpaying thousands of their staff in Australia – instances of companies dropping balls when it comes to the basics look even worse in the light of those brands shouting from the rooftops about how purposeful and responsible they are.

The reality is responsibility starts at home, and purpose can never cover poor behaviour. Whilst companies shouldn’t be expected to pass a ‘purity test’ before declaring their desire to do some good in the world, if the basics of things like pay, conditions and culture aren’t being met they can expect employees to give them short shrift when it comes to those grand proclamations.

All that said, the future is bright…

Whilst there is clearly a need for a strong does of honesty and groundedness when it comes to organisational purpose, there is plenty of cause for optimism too.

The pandemic has made leaders more self-aware and put care of people and planet on the agenda in a way it simply wasn’t before. Our research with 250+ business leaders revealed that over half saw purpose as more important to the success of the business post-pandemic than they did pre-pandemic.

The more that organisations can put employees at the heart of this shift, the more likely those employees are to be drawn to work for (and stick with) those companies who are getting it right. And ultimately, the more credible and authentic those lofty proclamations around purpose will be too.

By Dave Vann, Managing Director

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