Purpose, Values and Employee Engagement

March 13, 2024 thehrobserver-hrobserver-fistpump-employeehappiness

A lofty goal of many of the most successful companies is to have their people feel and act on a sense of shared purpose. The idea is that people who have a shared purpose will work together as a team (some would say family) and go beyond the call of duty to achieve a common goal. This makes logical sense.

Humans are social animals and have evolved to adjust and accommodate others in our in-group. It could be said that humans have prospered over other animals in large part because we have learned to work together to compensate for each other’s weaknesses.  

An idea sometimes attributed to Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, is thought provoking.  It is said she was asked what the first sign of civilisation was. Her response was, surprisingly, not about human production (e.g., fish hooks or clay pots or grinding stones). Instead, she is said to have talked about a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. 

The implication is that other people had to care for the fallen person over an extended period of time so the bone could heal.  A broken leg would mean that the person could not run from danger, ambulate, hunt, etc.    

The others around had to value that person enough, even when that person was of no immediate value to their survival. A broken femur that has healed is evidence that others have carried the person to safety and have cared for the person through the recovery process. Helping others through difficulty is where civilization starts. That help is similar to the sacrifice business wants from their employees to help the business thrive in times of difficulty and crisis. 

How does a business ensure that its people  are happy and willing to make that sacrifice for the greater good of the business?  It helps and perhaps is even necessary that they all share a common purpose.  

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer and aviator, who wrote The Little Prince said “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”   Shared purpose leads us to a business Gestalt where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  

Shared Purpose

John Kotter and James Heskett, “Corporate Culture and Performance“, found that companies operating with a shared sense of purpose increased job growth by 700%, revenues by 400% and stock prices by 1200%.  

Similarly, findings from a previous Deloitte Core Beliefs and Culture Survey found that companies with a strong sense of shared purpose do better than those that do not have one:

Similar findings have been found in various reports in the last 10 years when the importance of shared purpose has come to the fore.  

While writings on shared purpose became more prevalent in the last 10 years.  The subject has been around since at least the early 1990s. Does purpose influence corporate performance?  In a 1993 Strategic Management Journal paper (“Beyond the M-form: Toward a Managerial Theory of the Firm”), Bartlett and Ghostal outlined the basic philosophical shift that guides the shared purpose movement away from the “old doctrine of strategy, structure, and systems” to “a softer, more organic model built on the development of purpose, process, and people.”  

So it would behoove us to find colleagues that share our sense of purpose or at least are malleable to our purpose. This is even more true for our colleagues that matter the most, those influential and high-potential leaders.  These contributors are the most interested in meaningful work. Purpose thus becomes the driving force of the meaning behind the work.  However, it has been shown that having an articulated purpose alone is not associated with better business performance. Purpose needs to be coupled with significant management clarity around direction, job responsibilities, and tools that can be used to achieve the desired outcomes that are in line with that purpose. 

Values-based Organisations

Values-based organisations is another concept that has become popular in leadership circles.  A values-based organisation is one that operates with a strong focus on its core values and principles. In other words, a values-based organisation is one that is actively working towards having its shared purpose be central to its culture.  

Procter & Gamble (P&G) was an early adopter of this as a business strategy.  In 2009,  P&G announced a then trail blazing new business strategy to rekindle and accelerate growth.  As stated in their 2010, Annual Report,  “P&G’s Purpose–to touch and improve lives, now and for generations to come–is inspiring and pervasive. Our Purpose is tightly and deliberately linked to our business and financial goals: P&G’s Purpose inspires our strategic choices; it leads us to bigger and better innovation; it drives brilliant execution; and it compels us to make a difference in areas such as sustainability and social responsibility not merely to be a good citizen, but more importantly, to create future opportunities to touch and improve lives–and, in so doing, to keep our Company growing.”

 In the 1st year of that strategy, the results were impressive: #5 sales growth and earnings per share grew at 6%. The results also reflect an impact on and for employees.  

Another example of the merit of a values-based organisation is Unilever. Unilever has broadened the scope of its purpose to ‘sustainable workforce relationships’, a shift from ‘sustainable brands’ (a more logical sounding purpose for Unilever).  Why the inward shift focusing on employee experience?  Unilever believes that engaged employees (not just skilled or knowledgeable ones) with a growth mindset are the key to success.   The workforce landscape is changing.  There is a battle for the most talented high-potential employees. If Unilever can attract talent who adopt the company’s purpose, the result will be stable, productive employee relationships and a workforce that can flex with the rapidly changing world we live in due to AI, sustainability, etc.  

A key to achieving a values-based organisation is to inspire employees to add their hearts to their heads.  Engaging a great share of an employee’s heart leads to the employees giving a great share of mind to the company.  Employee engagement is key!

Values Based Employees & Quiet Quitting

Of course, being values based is a two-way street. Organisations are increasingly coming to realise that values-based leadership is an effective way to achieve growth and stability.  Employees of all sorts (e.g., executives, middle management, full time, contract, etc) are learning to take their own values into ever more significant consideration when applying to, joining, or staying with a company.   

Even freelancers are more prone to work with a company that they believe is aligned with their personal values. This is readily apparent in today’s geopolitically charged environments. One of the dangers some companies are fearful but values-based companies are attracted to is that some talented people may be repulsed by the company’s shared purpose. For a values-based company, this is a blessing in disguise for it means fewer mismatched hires, reduced quiet quitting, and greater workforce productivity. 

As stated previously, these benefits happen when there is shared purpose that is implemented more as an experience than as a posterised statement. Values-based employees are looking for signs of purpose authenticity.  

One huge problem that has received lots of press in the post covid era is quiet quitting – the act of meeting the minimum requirements of the job and being psychologically detached from it.  When employees do not feel a company is authentic with its articulated purpose, quiet quitting is a common result. 

Quiet quitting can be thought of as the antithesis of feeling a shared sense of purpose. It is estimated that 50% of the USA workforce are quiet quitters. The figures are similarly inflated everywhere.  Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 survey found that up to 75% of UAE workforce report quiet quitting. It’s a worldwide phenomenon.  

People’s values come in a wide variety of Flavors making it difficult for businesses to find one-to-one matches.  However common threads can be identified. Researchers Ken Dychtwald and Bob Morison, Tamara Erickson identified six segments of workers based on why and how they like to work.  These segments could help your company think through the type of person that is the best fit.

Source: A statistical survey of the US workforce conducted by the Concours Institute and Age Wave, a research and communications company, and funded by 24 major corporations.

While many leaders may be tempted to say that they want to attract the Expressive Legacy type of worker, this could be a mistake if the company does not provide creative and entrepreneurial opportunities for example. An Expressive Legacy type of person will not bleed company colours if the company does not engage them in meaningful ways. An Expressive Legacy type worker who is quietly quitting is a cost to the business.  

The bottom line is that more mature companies will build employee experiences that engage employees. This leads to a culture where each person happily shares their talents with the company for the greater good – the company’s purpose. Organisations should be clear about their purpose and I should be coupled with significant management clarity around direction, job responsibilities, and tools that can be used to achieve that purpose. 

Companies should not be afraid of having a strong culture with signature employee experiences.  These will attract value-aligned people and repel others. Talent will always prefer to bring their talent to organisations that engage them allowing those organisations to flex and face challenges head on with gusto. Do keep in mind that the feeling of a shared sense of purpose is the key as opposed to simply having a well worded articulation of a purpose.

Qaalfa Dibeehi

Managing Partner, Human2outcome

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