A sense of purpose

Employee engagement is a cornerstone of organisational success, traditionally driven by competitive pay and attractive perks, but increasingly influenced by the ability of employees to experience and share a company-wide culture of purpose. Here are five ways businesses can engage staff in the work they are doing.

Zingeving | een gezamelijk doel - Hays.nlRead time: 3 minutes | Published in Hays Journal 12

1. Manage culture

A 2014 study by Deloitte found that organisations that have developed a culture of purpose, focusing their energies beyond pure profit, to do better than those that have not. However, it also revealed that most executives and employees think that businesses are not doing enough to create this kind of culture.


Professor Mark Smith, Director of the Doctoral School at Grenoble École de Management, says: “Workplace culture exists in all organisations, whether it is managed or not. When it is managed, culture can help channel the efforts of employees towards a common cause for the organisation, acting as a kind of soft rule book so that employees know what is expected of them and what they should do. Linking culture to the purpose of the organisation by giving great service, innovating new solutions and raising funds for a good cause, can reinforce this link.”

2. Generational focus

There has been a trend to think that the need for meaning at work and an organisational sense of purpose is something that has arrived with the millennial generation, but that is not the case. Research completed a few years ago by cultural academic duo Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones talked about how a key aspect of building a high-performing organisation was to give employees meaning through purpose.  Their research covered multiple generations in the workplace.

However, according to Dr Chia-Huei Wu, Assistant Professor of Management at the London School of Economics’ Department of Management-there may be a generational trend behind this heightened sense of purpose which has been facilitated by the modern flexible workplace and smart technology.  He says “the younger generation has had more opportunity to explore and create an environment to support their ideas compared to their predecessors, because the business environment has become more flexible. Advancements in technology have also empowered people’s capability to find a place, either virtually or physically, to support their values and interests.”

3. Be goal driven

For all employees, the first step in knowing what they are working towards, and what that shared sense of purpose is, lies in understanding and identifying the reasons behind their specific work activities, which can be internal or external.

"PEOPLE ALWAYS WANT TO FEEL VALUED FOR THE JOB THEY ARE DOING" - Laurence Halabut, Toyota Financial Services

Dr Wu believes that “employees may find strong external reasons for their efforts such as monetary rewards, or strong internal reasons such as believing in the cause behind their work. They are more likely to experience a higher sense of purpose when they possess internal reasons to do their jobs because those reasons are not easily replaced or transferred elsewhere, and are central to how employees view and define themselves both inside and outside of the workplace.”

4. Give something back

Toyota Financial Services in Australia (part of a global network that offers Toyota customers services including car loans, insurance and roadside assistance solutions) is one organisation that has benefited from having a clearly defined and authentic sense of purpose, driven by its relationship with the community. Over the last three years, it has seen employee engagement increase by five per cent per annum, with a current level of 85 per cent. According to Head of Human Resources Laurence Halabut, this is an outstanding result for a financial services company.

He states that “what’s really important when you are talking about a sense of purpose is that people are aligned with not only what we are doing in the marketplace, but what we are actually doing for the community as well.  So, given the increase in engagement levels, we are on the right track.”

5. Create a level playing field

Purpose itself is nothing new, yet some organisations will be tempted to see it as something that can simply be incorporated into the mission statement. Framing words, though, is not the answer. The real impact on engagement is felt when it is part of other key elements in the organisational DNA, like the values that directly affect the employee experience.


Lee Cartwright, Managing Partner at accountancy firm Mazars LLP, has strong views on how a sense of purpose should manifest itself at a much more fundamental level of the company culture.

“Don’t refer to people as ‘staff’,” he says. “It’s a word that implies disempowerment, that they do as they are told. I call them colleagues, because the members of my team are my colleagues who work alongside me to deliver something, whether a strategy, a project; whatever it may be.”

This article was published in Hays Journal 12


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