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StrategyJan 15, 2019

Employee Engagement Part 5: Purpose

Kevin Erickson, Grace Lee, Cameron Weinert, and Ben Grotta

This article is the fifth of a six-part series on employee engagement and retention, which we refer to as “stickiness.” Younger generations make up an increasingly large share of the modern workforce, and companies must respond in order to acquire and retain top talent. This article will explore how purpose creates an engaged, satisfied workforce.

Gone are the days when a job was solely the means to earn a paycheck. Today’s employees have a deeply imbedded desire to derive meaning and purpose from their jobs. Meaningful work is quickly becoming an expectation. According to the Energy Project, employees who feel like they have purpose in their workplace are three times more likely to stay with that company than someone who does not feel engaged at work. Gen Z in particular is demanding purposeful work to the point that Huffpost proposed naming them the “Purpose Generation.” In short, purposeful work is not an afterthought in the retention of employees of all generations; it’s the foundation.

purpose creates better employees

Ensuring that employees find meaning in their work is not only a tactic to attract and retain employees, it’s also a wise business strategy. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, people “naturally experience the greatest happiness when fully absorbed in work [they] find meaningful and fulfilling.” Those motivated by a deep-seated sense of purpose enter a state of “flow,” in which they are more focused and productive. Purpose also serves as motivation to persevere through challenges by maintaining focus on an end goal. So if your employees are unfocused, unmotivated, and unproductive, maybe the issue is not a lack of talent, but rather a lack of purpose.

So how can employers begin to address a lack of purpose in the workplace? Here are three practical ways to get started.

1. Create Purpose Through Recognition-Fueled Respect

Finding purpose in work is possible regardless of an employee’s position or industry. Purpose is not a byproduct of a prestigious position; rather, it is fueled by respect. Philosopher Roman Krznaric defines respect as “being appreciated for what we personally bring to a job and being valued for our individual contribution.” Respect is conveyed through recognition, which in turn produces a sense of purpose. In fact, employees who have received recognition in the past month are 29% more likely to perceive their work as purposeful.

Recognition is especially impactful for younger generations, who are accustomed to continuous feedback loops and peer recognition as a means of experiencing “mattering.” That being said, recognition should be distributed discerningly; not all efforts, good and bad, should be applauded. Honest and candid feedback is the core of recognition, and millennials and gen Z place nearly equal amounts of value on positive criticism as on praise. As millennials and gen Z begin to comprise a larger portion of the workforce, structures that provide consistent feedback and recognition will become even more fundamental to creating a purpose-infused workplace.

2. Set Goals to Make the Mundane Meaningful

While purpose is not synonymous with goal setting and achieving, the two feed into one another. Having a clear purpose stimulates people to develop goals to work toward that purpose. Even without a clear, overarching purpose, establishing positive goals, such as learning a new skill or gaining specific experience, provides motivation and meaning. When everyday work is framed within the context of achieving pre-defined goals, even the most mundane of tasks can become meaningful.

Setting and achieving small wins can be intensely motivating and inspiring. In their book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer reveal that 28% of seemingly insignificant events, such as the completion of a task, have a significant impact on employees’ perceptions of and motivation at work. This impact occurs because any accomplishment, big or small, releases feel-good chemicals in the brain that boost self-confidence and motivate us to pursue more progress. Taking time to define clear goals and explaining the importance behind them enables employees to experience the satisfaction of achieving them.

3. Empower Your Employees With Greater Autonomy

Autonomy in the workplace means that employees feel a certain level of freedom and control. Companies can provide autonomy in a variety of different ways, from workplace flexibility and “flextime” to decentralized management structures. Employees who are micro-managed are unlikely to derive purpose from their work, since they are less able to feel ownership over their work product. On the other hand, employees who are self-directed and free to use creative means to achieve the goal set before them are shown to be more engaged, productive, and purpose-driven.

Autonomy nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit, one that is very much alive in gen Z. 32% of gen Z name autonomy among their most important career goals, and 43% want to be entrepreneurs when they graduate college. Providing autonomy to gen Z is a powerful way to engage them by channeling their entrepreneurial mindsets to their everyday work. This autonomy should be balanced with clear direction and expectation setting, but allowing employees to determine how they want to reach a milestone is a powerful way to build ownership and provide motivation.

creating the structure for purpose to thrive

While the principles listed above can serve as a starting point to investing in employees’ workplace purpose, their application should be tailored to fit each individual organization. Consider these questions when crafting strategies to promote purpose:

  • How can we ensure that employees receive personal appreciation for individual contributions? Although peer recognition awards or “employee of the month” programs are beneficial, even a note of appreciation can go a long way.

  • How can we incorporate small wins into each work day? Encourage managers to define small, achievable goals for employees to work toward, and track progress daily.

  • How can we promote autonomy and leverage entrepreneurial mindsets internally? Provide your employees structure in terms of goals, while allowing them the freedom to innovate new ways of achieving them.

The verdict is in: purpose creates happy, productive, and engaged employees. By providing recognition where it is earned, setting and achieving goals, and supporting a degree of autonomy, you can create the structures necessary for purpose to thrive.

Interested in learning more about how to create a culture of purpose-driven work? Interested in how Credera strives to integrate purpose in our own workplace? Reach out to us here to find out more! Or find the rest of the series here:

Part 1: Introduction and Trends

Part 2: People and Culture

Part 3: Vision and Mission

Part 4: Compensation and Benefits

Part 6: Professional Development