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Putting Meaning Back in Purpose

February 19, 2020

Over the last five years, the idea of “purpose” and the role it can play in creating alignment and driving value for an organization and its employees has gained a lot of traction. Today, when people feel disillusioned with traditional institutions, it’s no surprise that companies are trying to fill a void in public life. These efforts appear to be working, although there is room for improvement. According to an APCO Worldwide survey of 2,000 U.S. workers across multiple industries, most employers are largely meeting expectations when it comes to mission and purpose, with 33 percent of respondents saying that their organization has a compelling mission and purpose.  

Yet, this same group of respondents rated employers much lower when it came to “providing meaningful work”—which had one of the largest gaps in “importance” for the employee and “performance” by the company. This marked difference between how employees view “purpose” and “meaningful work” suggests that companies are struggling to effectively link the two ideas. Either employees don’t see themselves—or their jobs—as essential drivers of their company’s purpose, or worse, purpose is seen as a brand or communications gimmick disconnected from their work.

So how can companies better connect their purpose to day-to-day operations and help employees develop a deeper sense of meaning?  Perhaps, start by pressing pause and doing the following:

1. Listen: Start by trying to understand employee expectations and why they might/might not identify with the company’s purpose or feel it has a connection to their job. This could be as simple as surveys, small group staff meetings or informal one-on-one meetings to ask questions like: Do you know the organization’s purpose? What does it mean to you? Is it relevant to your job? Why or why not? How can we make it more explicit? Who’s a trusted leader that you’d like to hear from?

2. Create Relevance: Creating a commonality of purpose that is relevant to every person in the organization is a powerful way to build culture, alignment and drive performance. For example, make sure that managers can speak to both the broad vision as well as department strategies that help to achieve it.

3. Build Trust: Make sure to communicate about purpose in a way that is credible. Being too lofty may come off as inauthentic or disconnected from people’s daily lives. Support words with actions that reward and recognize people across the organization that bring purpose to life in meaningful and tangible ways.

Without these three actions, efforts to make purpose meaningful to employees will likely fall flat. Employees are savvy and have seen management ideas and business trends come and go. It is essential for organizations to avoid “purpose washing”—as noted by APCO International Advisory Council member Barie Carmichael, the “backlash of getting outed when actions do not meet high-minded purpose statements disrupts business and erodes value.” To put meaning back in purpose, organizations must be brutally honest about the vulnerabilities and test for potential pitfalls before taking bolder corporate stands.

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