Most people who are miserable at their jobs, at one point arrive at the question: “Why?”. When you are stuck working long hours, making reports, or clocking off a never-ending swath of meetings, it’s hard to see how things should change tomorrow, in a month, or a decade.
Of course, rising inflation and layoffs in just about any industry keep people holding on to their jobs or, at least – to the idea of a job in general. However, behind each working day, lurks a feeling of emptiness, entrapment, and the “who cares anyway? – at least, this is the case for 85% of frontline workers and managers surveyed by McKinsey.
Although workers don’t get a tangible sense of work purpose, data shows they would love to do so. According to a PwC survey, for, 69% of employees the lack of work meaning results in a need for a switch. Only financial compensation, that’s on the minds of 71% of respondents, is a more impactful decision-maker.
From a team manager’s perspective, it’s tempting to turn a blind eye to the purpose dilemma and wait till unmotivated employees “get over it” and jump back in the saddle. However, it may be better to tackle the issue proactively for two reasons.
Number one – purpose-driven teams are way more productive than people who are “winging it” nine-to-five. Once you look at studies, it’s clear that knowing how to inspire employees is a cheat code for a leader. In a survey by Bain and Company published by Harvard Business Review, inspired employees outperformed teams that were engaged but didn’t have the same drive to work by a significant margin.
Number two, most people aren’t thrilled to tolerate soul-sucking jobs and will jump on a chance to switch gears as soon as they get one.
Thus, whatever the answer to inspiring your team is, it is worth searching for. However, trivial motivators don’t work when inspiration is at stake.
One obvious answer would be a higher paycheck which is helpful when workers feel not compensated fairly. If they do, blowing salaries out of proportion can lead to impostor syndrome and make people lose genuine interest in their work by turning it into a quid pro quo.
Based on the experience of long-term partnerships with over 2,000 organizations and assisting teams of all sizes in reaching their peak performance, we identified five pillars that support a long-lasting sense of inspiration and purpose at work: societal impact, inspiring role models, satisfying interactions, learning opportunities, and work-life balance.
Let’s zoom in on each of these to see how they promote fulfillment.
#1. Societal impact
Organizations, driven only by materialistic goals like revenue and the status of the brand appeal neither to customers nor to employees.
In today’s environment, many fear dystopian narratives where malicious corporate actors misuse their power to obstruct access to information, interfere with freedom of expression, and influence public opinion in ways so subtle people would struggle to tell false from true.
These concerns are not unreasonable: globalization put corporations like Meta, Amazon, Apple, in Google in a position to continue amassing profits and use them to shutter competitors and oppose governments.
Studies show that 40% of Americans don’t trust corporations – back in 1985, the figure used to be 25%.
Yet, as climate change, political tension, and the aftermath of the pandemic enter the picture, a multi-million cohort of stock-owners (58% of the US population according to recent data) have the power to demand accountability and respect for ESG (environmental, social, and governance) principles.
What does this mean for leaders? First of all, they should understand that mission is no longer an add-on they can use to get press, pitch investors, or inflate egos. It is a responsibility they are expected to accept and pressured to live up to.
An infamous case of backlash triggered by Salesforce the CEO of which declared the victory of shareholder capitalism one day and laid off 1,000 of its workforce amidst the pandemic (thus defying its ESG stance) proves that a mission statement should be not a poster on the wall – but an honest, long-lasting commitment on the behalf of C-suite, managers, and employees.
The good news teams are not only willing to but actively eager to prioritize the purpose of the work they are doing. According to McKinsey data, those who felt like their company’s mission statement aligned with their worldview were more loyal, productive, and engaged than those who did not.
What actionable steps should leaders take to foster workplace purpose? The key is in promoting discussion and encouraging freedom of expression. Make sure everyone on your team gets a say on the company’s mission since every team member contributes to it in some way.
Once the organization’s mission statement is clear, leaders should focus on ways to deliver on their promises and accountability mechanisms. The key way to live by the company’s mission statement is by factoring it into hiring decisions, infrastructure design, and corporate culture.
Creating monthly reports on how your company lives up to its stakeholder promises and sharing them with stakeholders and team members will help promote accountability in the workplace.
#2. Inspiring leaders
The feeling of workplace purpose doesn’t always have to be connected to solving large-scale problems and driving global change. It can appear in workplace dynamics – for example, employees can get motivated by observing inspired leaders.
Up to a point, there’s a correlation between the efficiency of a team and the perceived charisma of its leader. So, if you are heading a team, adopting charismatic personality traits can help increase motivation among your reports and lead to higher job satisfaction.
Depending on the size, nature, and cultural background of your team, the prerequisites for charismatic leadership can change. In a 2013 article, after surveying 2,000 employees, Harvard Business Review contributors shared a list of over 30 traits typically attributed to inspirational and admired leaders.
Fortunately, one of them stood out the most: so-called “centeredness”. It is an umbrella term encompassing:
- The ability to stay calm under pressure
- Readiness to actively listen and pay attention to the team
- Empathy and compassion
- Consistency in words and actions
Given their influence and decision-making power, leaders are directly responsible for fostering a sense of purpose in work.
Improving social skills like active listening and becoming an effective manager through stress resistance is crucial. So is connecting with employees and adopting regularity in cadences with the members of the organization.
The caveat to keep in mind is that excessive charisma can be detrimental to your team’s success and motivation levels. An employee survey found that leaders ranked in the 60-80 percentile in charisma are seen as less effective by peers and subordinates.
The reason for that is that highly charismatic leaders are mostly strategists and rarely operationists. They are excellent at seeing the big-picture view but somewhat lackluster in working their way through day-to-day tasks and processes needed to fulfill a leader’s ambitious vision.
Thus, leaders should watch out that visionary and strategic thinking does not interfere with less flashy but equally important daily workflows.
#3. Satisfying interactions
An inspirational leader can help create and promote a company’s mission, instilling a sense of trust and purpose in her subordinates. However, resilient organizations should be able to outlive their leaders’ death, demise, or personal eccentricities.
Those that do, like post-Steve-Jobs’ Apple can go on to assert market dominance and over $1 trillion in value. Those that don’t go out of business like Theranos did after Holmes’ fraud charges.
What sets winners apart from the outliers is the ability to make the inspiration and purpose-promoting traits of their leaders part of their brand identity and embed them into corporate processes.
To make sure the company is still attractive to employees even if a leader they admired is no longer in charge, workplace purpose should be fostered through minute workplace interactions, as in:
- Operational efficiency. Overwhelming employees with mundane tasks and giving them no chance to focus on creative work will hinder their sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. On the contrary, automating routine processes and giving people room to control and self-manage their task lists will help offset burnout and promote a focus on impactful work.
- Teamwork. Studies show that working together and sharing knowledge strongly contributes to intrinsic motivation and the ability to work with purpose. Gregory Walton, who published a paper on the matter, divided experiment participants into two groups – one of which was working individually and the other one – as a team. Observations showed that working on a problem together contributed to higher interest and readiness to spend more time on the task. Leaders can use the benefits of collaborative work and peer pressure to build purpose-driven workplaces. In remote organizations, group projects are even more critical in helping employees feel connected and build bonds with each other.
- Freedom of choosing and prioritizing tasks. Leaders can help employees regain control by letting them choose the tasks to work on. Micromanagement is detrimental to the sense of workplace purpose because people are pushed and pulled in all directions by their supervisors.
#4. Learning opportunities
Automation and digitization have shown that the job market is on track to change drastically. World Economic Forum estimates the emergence of over 97 million new roles and projects the need to reskill over 120 million employees.
Even if they don’t know the exact figures, employees are well aware of the threats automation poses to their job security. Many feel the pressure to improve continuously and keep tabs on trends and practices in their industry.
For leaders, having a team that is eager to learn is highly beneficial – it means that legacy systems will be replaced with innovative solutions, old practices will be discarded, and innovation will be adopted every step of the way.
At the same time, managers need to focus on employee learning and development if they don’t want to surrender their top performers to organizations with stronger L&D programs. This is easier said than done – statistically, only 10% out of $200 billion invested each year in employee training deliver results.
In trying to understand what sets an effective program apart from a poorly performing one, we identified the following determinants:
- Overreliance on third-party providers. Collaborating with a workplace training solution vendor is standard practice for leaders who don’t have the time or resources to create an in-house L&D infrastructure. While it saves time and helps managers allocate resources in areas with higher potential returns, heavy reliance on outside tools creates a disconnect between the things employees learn in the workplace and the potential applications of that knowledge.
- Schedules that don’t set time for learning aside. Employees are often expected to complete training sessions in parallel with day-to-day responsibilities. As the result, they underperform in one or both areas and feel pressure and stress instead of curiosity and empowerment.
- Lack of communication between learners and instructors. One-way communication is a prevalent way to organize training sessions, especially in remote workplaces. In a standard workflow, employees watch the content uploaded on an LMS and complete quizzes to review the material. The inability to share feedback about the course, ask in-depth questions, or exchange ideas with other trainees makes the learning material ring hollow and concepts slide past long-term retention. The lack of emotional connection with the material bites at the sense of purpose learning and development was supposed to foster and turns it into another box to check.
Yet, when done right, employee education can keep teams interested in their work. Studies show that learning activates dopaminergic pathways in our brains, bringing a sense of immediate pleasure and reward.
As for the long-term impact, learning helps empower teams with the tools that can help them drive larger-scale changes inside the company and in the world at large.
So, as tempting as it would be to attribute the inefficiency of a single L&D program to the failure of the system as a whole, leaders should focus on increasing the range of immediate applications and the degree of interactivity in their training sessions.
#5. Work-life balance
Finally, as trends like “quiet quitting” show, no matter how impactful, enjoyable, and well-compensated one’s job is, people are growing tired of workplaces being at the center of their lives.
Although quiet quitting can be considered a red flag for managers and can become a helpful push to rethinking employee engagement strategies, in and of itself, it is not an unseen anomaly.
In his article on the phenomenon for The Atlantic, Derek Thomson zooms into the data provided by the annual Gallup survey to gauge the engagement of American employees.
It turns out that, while there has been a surge of engagement during the pandemic and a subsequent drop this year, in absolute terms, the value is still higher than any of those recorded in the period between 2000 and 2014.
Should we then think that the media hype is overblown and uncalled for? Such is the story the numbers tell – so data-driven leaders should take note.
As to what they should do to make sure “quiet quitting” doesn’t become “loud quitting”, with doors slammed and resignations hitting desks is helping employees avoid secrecy and blame in trying to have a life outside of work.
As much as leaders would be happy with employees finding purpose in work alone (and workers share this ambition), most have other sources of fulfillment – families, hobbies, and social activism.
By learning and recharging outside the workplace, teams can use the energy harnessed to power through stressful workdays and apply lessons learned in side projects to day jobs.
That’s why the key component of helping employees find purpose lies in understanding that a 9-to-5 will never be at the center of people’s lives.
Leaders should give teams the opportunity to openly pursue side projects that keep them fulfilled and motivated.
The bottom line
Data shows a consistent link between workplace purpose and productivity, retention, and engagement at work. Considering its benefits and long-term impact, it’s a quest worth pursuing. At the same time, there’s no single handbook leaders can use to cultivate purpose. The tools you choose to increase workplace fulfillment depend on the organization, as well as individual employees.
In our experience, the readiness to listen to teammates and mold organizational policies to meet their requests is an excellent starting point in cultivating a sense of purpose in the workplace.
That’s why, at oVice, we emphasize the importance of seamless communication, especially in remote environments where peers and managers get fewer engagement opportunities.
Find out how our solutions helped over 2,200 organizations build purpose-driven workplaces by improving communication and enabling teamwork. For a firsthand experience of the platform, visit our demo space.