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The Importance of Purpose in Engaging Employees


 — November 3rd, 2022

The Importance of Purpose in Engaging Employees

When we think about engaging our employees, one of our first thoughts should be around purpose.

In the words of Simon Sinek, “Why we do what we do”. Most organizations can tell us "what" they do—we make X, we help Y—but the organizations who engage their employees best can explain "why" they do something.

(If you haven’t heard Simon’s TED Talk on "Starting with Why" take a look here.)

I’m sure you’ll be familiar with some "why"s from larger brands:

  • To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. Nike
  • To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. Tesla
  • To help make it easy for people to do themselves some good. Innocent

And according to the past five editions of Gallagher's State of the Sector Report, "Engaging people around purpose, strategy and values", remains the number-one priority for more than half (53%) of the world’s organizations surveyed.

But it isn’t enough to understand the purpose of the organization. What does organization purpose mean to each colleague that works for you? How does what they do fit in?

We’ve all heard the story of the NASA Janitor who was "helping to put a man on the moon". While that may have been embellished over the years to create a great story (and I’m really hoping that it wasn’t), it epitomizes someone who really understood how their actions impacted the organization.

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Let me share a recent experience of mine that could have ended very differently if the individuals involved had understood their purpose.

My broadband speed has reduced so much recently that it’s started to affect my productivity. Over the last year, our area has received full fiber connectivity, and yet, when I’ve checked periodically, it’s not something that my current provider offers, so I thought I’d ask when I am likely to receive it.

Once I was connected with the call center, I explained my reason for calling and asked the lady if she could give me an update on when I might be able to upgrade to full fiber.

After a few periods of radio silence and a lot of tapping, she informed me that she didn’t know. Now I have been with my provider for years and am very loyal to them so, not wanting to move I tried again.

I asked if she were able to find out whether it was likely to be months or years—so that I could decide whether to hang on in there. Her response was that she’d know at the same time that I did, and if it was affecting my business I’d be better off moving to a competitor who did offer the service!

Now you might think, why didn’t I just move? Well, having tried this approach previously with another service, I came home one day to find that a large gulley had appeared down the middle of my drive with a loose cable running through it and onto the front of the house.

Necessary? Maybe, but clearly done with no consideration for the mess and final appearance.

I digress, but you’ll see why I was apprehensive about another attempt. So, I called a competitor, explained my concern, and asked whether their service would require further upheaval with the drive.

The gentleman that I spoke to told me he couldn’t answer my question until he took some details. I didn’t mind offering my address which I’m sure he needed to check the service but did question why he needed my email address and mobile number simply to tell me if a new line would need to be laid.

He then proceeded to take me through the sales process, despite me telling him several times that this was only a preliminary inquiry, trying to close the deal several times before I finally ended the call.

You may wonder why I’m sharing this, but the more I reflected on the two conversations, the more I realized that underpinning both of these conversations was a lack of understanding of purpose.

The first lady, who recommended I switch to a competitor, was being authentic. She genuinely felt she was helping me, which was commendable.

But what about her organization? We all know that it can cost up to five times more to win a new customer than to retain an existing one. If she had been able to provide me with a move date, I would have waited.

If she had felt more empowered and informed to help me, I would never have made the competitor call.

As for the competitor, as soon as he sensed a small chance of a sale all bets were off. He didn’t listen. He wasn’t engaging with me as a potential customer. He saw me as another step closer to hitting his sales target, and his pressured sales approach was simply off-putting.

The sad thing is, if he had listened to my concerns and been able to reassure me, I probably would have switched providers.

So, there we have it. Two recent examples where an understanding of purpose could have resulted in very different, and positive, outcomes.

What can we learn from this as internal communicators?

  • Create or revisit your organization's purpose. Is it still valid today? What does it mean? How are you living it? How are you engaging your people with it?
  • Share it widely, frequently. Keep it front of mind to remind everyone why they do what they do
  • Help managers to identify their own team purpose aligned with your organization
  • Make it personal. Help colleagues to understand what purpose means to them individually and how what they do adds value—create your NASA janitor story
  • Check that your communications align and link to your organization's purpose
  • Showcase great examples from your own colleagues to bring purpose to life

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