IC Matters › Engagement

Employee engagement and the power of purpose: why a respectful dialogue is more important than any office perks

David KennyDavid Kenny·
Employee engagement

In the first of a two-part series, internal communications specialist David Kenny explores why a sense of purpose is so important in the workplace to foster real employee engagement.

The more complex our world gets, the busier we are, the more ‘reductionist’ our perspective can become. Really easily, we can be pushed into a place where our lives become interrupt driven, we respond to crises, we spend time on the ‘burning platform’, we push everything into quadrants of ‘urgent not important’, Important and urgent’. It’s a special kind of tactical hell.

To dig ourselves out, we use the same approaches that got us there in the first place. Completely linear solutions deployed to fix the problems caused by overuse of linear solutions. To do lists, task managers, time management techniques, personal effectiveness matrices, break everything up into little pieces, tasks, sub tasks, and focus on them in isolation. Delegate sub tasks of the sub tasks. The result: many of us are working on strings of nano-tasks that we really don’t understand and have no relationship with, but hey, the lunch I had in one of the seven company restaurants at my workplace was amazing today, right? The coffee, soft drinks and endless supply of snacks are just amazing and the work life balance just can’t be beaten.

Do you hope these diversions will maintain your interest, and remind yourself to be grateful for them at critical points throughout the day?  Are the whole departments of people who strive to determine new and different distractions for a workforce that, undistracted, would plummet into a black hole of disengagement? That’s what we are looking for, right? Engagement. The holy grail of employee motivation. The sine qua non of every high growth company. The engaged workforce, consistently measured and evaluated in an effort to reach a sort of weird Pareto optimality. Is it an ‘optimized experience’ or just ‘managed mediocrity’, and either way, is it actually getting us anywhere good?

This isn’t news. “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life,” Viktor Frankl, 1962. We have known that the pain and pleasure balance is a pretty basic motivator for a long time. Actually caring about people is long overdue, probably because it requires leaders to do something many leaders just can’t do: really understand their people. No one size fits all, no snacks and candy, but a respectful dialogue about what really matters to them, what really matters to you, and where the intersections might be.

This requires a shift in thinking, but it’s one that’s happening anyway, your future success will be significantly influenced by how well you make the transition. Command and control as a leadership style isn’t enduring, our organizations can’t withstand the structural strain, and perhaps of an even greater relevance, our populations will no longer tolerate it.

Edelman identified, in their research on individuals born between 1980 and 1995, that 80% of this global population have expressed their number one goal as “Having a job with a purpose that matches my personal passion”. The explosion in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics will act as a buffer, protecting many industries from the immediate threat that this represents. For everyone else, there is a ‘right now’ problem. How do we attract, retain and engage with a workforce that has matured to a point where they can see through the shimmering gauze that obscures the inconvenient truth: A clear majority of corporations exist primarily for the benefit of their shareholders, and their real purpose can be expressed only in fiscal terms and earning per share?

To maintain social relevance, every enterprise will have to connect with its own purpose and find a way to ‘scale’ passion. That ‘purpose’ must be sufficiently inclusive to motivate a highly media savvy population to share in it. This narrative is beginning to emerge already. Companies that appear to have a completely self-serving purpose, enabled by the mass democratization of computing power and market disintermediation, while enjoying short term success, are getting consistently pounded in the market place. Every story you see is about their questionable business practices, every response is about how to hit them where it hurts.

To this end, enduring brands are already taking action. We see visionary companies, such as Unilever, addressing purpose as a primary objective. Their vision statement:

Unilever has a simple but clear purpose – to make sustainable living commonplace. We believe this is the best long-term way for our business to grow.

Liberty Global takes a different, but equally compelling approach with “Connect, Discover, Be Free”.

These are compelling, they call to us, they are inclusive, they speak to what matters. However, the biggest challenge is how do you take the vision, and map it to purpose. Not just executive purpose, not just senior management purpose, but everyone’s purpose. How do you map out the purpose of a tribe?

There is a great framework you can use to do this. It lends itself to a large audience and good internal communications. It’s a process, and it’s a continuous one, with no obvious goal, but the more you do it, the better it gets. More on that later.

You can find Part two here.

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