How Does Shared Purpose Benefit Organizations and People?

Employers are convinced by now of the importance of positive employee personal relationships (PERS), employee engagement, and quality employee communication. But what are the principles underlying these three crucial factors in a successful organization? What basic overarching principle guides employee relationships, engagement, and communication? The answer is "shared purpose." Purpose refers to not what the company does but why it matters. The organizational purpose and the purpose employees find in work and coming to work should be shared. As millennials and Gen Z account for a higher percentage of the workforce each year, the extent they experience a shared purpose will define an organization's ability to fully engage employees, crucial to staying union-free.   

Shared Purpose: People Believe in the "Why" of Work 

CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz said, "When you're surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible."  

The concept of purpose should not be confused with organizational mission and vision. A mission is a statement of fact. The mission describes what your company does, and the constituency served. It is a statement on the reason your organization exists. The vision statement describes what the organization's future will look like if it successfully achieves the mission. A vision statement is aspirational.  

Purpose is why your organization exists. What social value does it strengthen? What contribution does the organization make to the greater good? How does its performance benefit people? Purpose answers these kinds of questions. Purpose is the beating heart of the organization, influencing employee and customer relationships, operational decisions, leadership, ability to innovate, and community relations. It keeps the mission and values alive. To achieve the greater purpose, shared purpose is needed because everything an organization does begins with its people. You need motivated, energetic employees who embrace the purpose.    

A shared purpose underscores the relationship of employees to work. It's needed for motivation, engagement, positive employee-employer and team relationships, and willingness to bring energy to work. It's vital to meet the challenges of the Great Resignation, retain top talent, and stay union-free because the strength of shared purpose drives positive employee relations. A shared purpose is needed to align the commercial side of the business (profit) with the social side. 

#Purpose is the beating heart of an organization, influencing employee & customer relationships, operational decisions, leadership, ability to innovate, and community relations.

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Shared purpose is essential to your company's success and the success of its people. The founder and former CEO of Visa USA said it well, "An organization's success has more to do with the clarity of shared purpose, common principles and strength of belief in them than to assets expertise, operating ability or management competence, important as they may be." Without a shared purpose, many employees show up for work to collect a paycheck and pay bills. It is about survival. Is it any wonder that employees who feel that way turn to labor unions offering a shared purpose. The union's message is, "We work together to make the worker's world more equitable and socially just."  

Developing the Employee Relationship to Work  

Stephen Covey said, "The highest challenge inside organizations is to enable each person to contribute his or her unique talents and passion to accomplish the organization's purpose." To meet that challenge requires developing a shared purpose so that your employee's relationship to work is meaningful.  

Showing up for work is not the same as stepping up for work with energy and a belief the work effort will make a difference to people. Millions of people go to work each day with one thought, "I'll be glad when the workday is done." They don't bring their energy, passion, or creativity to work because they don't see their efforts as fulfilling a personal purpose. Work is perceived as survival, achieved by supporting corporate profit-making. Shared purpose starts with the premise that bringing corporate and personal values together leads to enormous advantages for the organization and people inside and outside.  

Korn Ferry offered an example of the power of shared purpose, in this case, to improve employee productivity. A training course leader held a team-building exercise to put an "item" together in a short period. The attendees separated into groups of three and received instructions, diagrams, and various tools and parts. After 30 minutes, there were no results, with one team member just wanting to be told what they were making. The group was told to watch a video on TV which showed images of children living in poverty, and all were amputees due to different reasons. At that point, the team understood it was building a prosthetic hand. A sense of collective purpose quickly developed: Build a prosthetic hand that gives hope and opportunity to others.  

"There was a real sense of collaboration, engagement, commitment, and pride. It was at that moment when I truly understood meaning is what makes people thrive, and it is critically important to driving performance," writes Paula Haralambous with Korn Ferry Advisory, Australia.   

This example demonstrates how shared purpose drives positive team relationships, increasing engagement in the project, driving the use of personal skills and beliefs to produce results, and changing behaviors. Thinking in terms of staying union-free, consider how developing shared purpose can achieve the very things needed – higher employee engagement, positive employee relations with leaders, better communication among workforce members, and a desire to fulfill personal and corporate goals through value-driven efforts.   

shared purpose organizational goals


Redefining the Employee-Employer Relationship 

Many surveys have been conducted that ask Millennials and Gen X their feelings about work. This is not to ignore Baby Boomers, but the older generation's members are retiring rapidly. The statistics indicate 10,000 a day reach retirement age. Forbes calls it the "Great Retirement," with the pandemic forcing millions out of the workforce in 2020 and the exodus accelerating in 2021. While Baby Boomers are leaving the workforce to enjoy life, younger generational members are resigning to find work with meaning. So the focus of the discussion is on Millennials and Gen X.  

The word "meaning" always enters discussions about positive employee relations and employee engagement. Finding meaning in work is crucial to a great relationship with work. It is one of the most critical elements of a shared purpose. If your employees don't find meaning in their work, they will experience disengagement to some degree. They won't bring their full energy and creativity to the workplace or look for jobs with other organizations.  

The employee-employer relationship has traditionally been based on power. Leadership held power, ordered and directed work, and conducted scary performance reviews. Leaders didn't discuss organizational values, the employee contributions to achieving the organizational mission, or esoteric ideas like "employee value proposition." This leadership style still exists obviously because so many companies struggle with employee engagement. Gallup tracks employee engagement, and a January 2022 survey found that 34 percent were engaged and 16 percent were actively disengaged. The numbers reflect a decline in the number of engaged employees and an increase in the number of actively disengaged employees compared to 2020.  

It is easy to blame the COVID-19 pandemic for the engagement changes but consider this. Employees who have purpose are more adaptable and know how to use change as a resource, rather than a barrier, that offers opportunities to utilize skills in meaningful work. They accept the challenge with vigor. When they have a shared purpose, employees leverage change while using their skills to collaborate with managers and supervisors to pursue organizational goals. Their work values are the same as the organizational values, and work is viewed as a way to realize a personal vision as much as a corporate vision. When something like a pandemic disrupts work and organizational processes, employees don't join unions. They call upon their ability to adapt and innovate because they fully support the company's purpose or the "why" of its existence and ability to make a difference.   

Employees also don't walk out of their jobs. Shared purpose is another way companies can combat the Great Resignation. Your employees believe they are working for a goal larger than their individual work goals. There is no reason to abandon the job and lose the connection. 

Why Shared Purpose? 

Exploring the disrupted worker-employer relationship based on shared purpose, Deloitte discusses "purpose unleashed." A YouTube video had several employees explain the importance of their relationship to work. They made statements about things like: 

  • Wanting shared beliefs with their employers 
  • Working for a company that values giving back and backs it up and isn't making empty statements with no action 
  • Lace of interest in a job that only pays the bills and helps build a resume 
  • Working with a sense of agency meant helping to shape the company 
  • Importance of an open-door policy 
  • Working for a company that nurtures a creative mindset 

One of the driving forces for Millennials and Gen Z is a genuine desire to work for companies that deliver social and environmental value and change. They are concerned about social justice; climate change; environmental justice; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and thriving communities, especially communities of underserved people. From a union perspective, these concerns are fodder for generating unrest among workers by showcasing the employer as not caring about the things important to employees.  

Unions are pursuing Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) to promote things like climate justice. BCG is a way to create a shared purpose between labor unions, workers, and communities. A BCG campaign doesn't focus on just agreeing to a union contract. It is intended to organize people around a shared purpose like racial justice and environmental equity.  

So shared purpose is not limited to for-profit organizations, but any organization, association, and labor union that understands the importance of building shared purpose and proactively pursuing it will come out ahead going forward. More younger workers are starting union organizing campaigns and joining unions. The union membership level for workers aged 25-34 has increased from 8.8 percent to 9.4 percent between 2019 and 2021. Though some say they view unions as the best way to pursue wage equality and better working conditions, others say the pandemic has made them rethink what they deserve from work. One worker said, "You have rights, you have a say-so, you don't have to put up with whatever your manager says to you." Notice the "says to you." That is not collaborative communication.   


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Shared Purpose Brought to Life 

How does an organization build a shared purpose and then unleash it? It begins with leadership. Deloitte addressed three ways organizations may choose to navigate a purpose unleashed future.  

  • Instinctive response – In this scenario, leaders are vocal and visible on various social or political issues, regularly communicating the purpose and importance to employees and the public. The risk lies in overstating the message and not living up to it. Leadership looks insincere, especially when management has to backtrack on their communication, making it nearly impossible to develop positive employee relations and a shared purpose.  
  • Survive strategy – When an organization conveys a purpose meant for all stakeholders, the purpose must be embedded in everything. Values and aspirations are incorporated in leadership, operations, recruitment and development programs, marketing, etc. The purpose is reflected in all talent programs, including employee learning and development efforts. The organization is committed to the purpose and doesn't back out of commitments. There is an investment in ensuring purpose is communicated. 
  • Thrive differentiator – Workers are engaged as co-creators of purpose. The employee-employer relationship constantly evolves to meet the increasingly complex social and environmental issues. There are employee action teams, inclusion of employees in board discussions or on the board itself, sharing of decision-making power in meaningful ways on a day-to-day basis, and participation in navigating change. 

The ideal choice is the thrive differentiator because it establishes an employee-employer relationship based on an honest purpose that everyone embraces. The purpose is the guiding principle that helps the organization adapt going into the future and not just responding to the present. One fact is certain: there will be more disruptions in the country, the world, and the marketplace. Purpose supports resilience because people find meaning in their work.   

How does an organization build a shared purpose and then unleash it? It begins with #leadership. #sharedpurpose #purposedriven

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how shared purpose benefits organizations

Building a Shared Purpose Organization 

Building a shared purpose organization doesn't happen overnight, but definite steps can be quickly implemented while the long-term strategy evolves. 

  • Identify the real higher purpose – You can't develop a shared purpose unless you know the organization's real higher purpose. So many companies respond quickly to social events or to things like failing to meet diversity numbers by publicly making more promises they can't keep. It creates public and workforce cynicism about the company.  

Unkept promises are exactly what labor unions leverage to turn them into a shared purpose that promotes unionization. To increase employee commitment, collaboration, and sense of work meaning, identify what will drive commitment. It could be having a positive impact on people, becoming a role model organization for diversity in an underrepresented industry, being an organizational environmental warrior, etc. A lot depends on the type and industry of your organization.   

  • Leadership training – Getting your leaders on board with purpose and how to develop a shared purpose is a basic necessity. Leaders from the C-suite to the frontline must dedicate themselves to an authentic shared purpose and deliver purpose-driven leadership. The people interacting with employees every day must understand how to routinely communicate purpose to employees in their behaviors and decision-making and promote shared purpose in work.  

An essential part of leadership training is changing employees' perspectives. Leaders who view employees as being there for a paycheck will derail efforts to develop shared purpose. They don't see employees as co-creators and don't help them find meaning in their work.  

  • Communicate the purpose to employees – This is not a one-off effort where you hold a meeting and inform employees of the shared purpose, asking them to support it. Communication of the purpose must be never-ending. This accommodates employees slow to listen to the intent of the communication, a shifting workforce with people leaving the organization and being replaced, and a growing workforce.   
  • Assist employees in connecting to the shared purpose – Purpose-driven leadership is essential because leaders make decisions with purpose as a filter. They also give employees every opportunity to express their shared purpose in the work they do, the autonomy allowed, and their access to managers and supervisors through an open-door policy. They also need opportunities to publicly support and express how they are making a difference in the world.   

KPMG launched a Higher Purpose initiative to strengthen employee pride, engagement, and emotional connection to the company. The initiative encouraged people to share the meaning and positive impact of their work and led to the 10,000 Stories challenge, which led to more than 27,000 people participating. Employees can create posters with a headline and statement that answers the question, "What do you do at KPMG?" The signature theme is "Inspire Confidence. Empower Change." and is communicated to global employees and celebrated by using a variety of communication channels – videodigital communication, print, leadership speeches, employee engagement activities, social media, and in-person events.   

Here is a key statement KPMG makes that illustrates the enormous difference of shared purpose in work to traditional work perspectives. "The launch of this new purpose initiative also helped to create a cultural shift at the firm by speaking to KPMGers' hearts as well as their heads."  

Takeaways  

Shared purpose is not an initiative, though you can leverage an initiative to get the dialogue started. The KPMG initiative was only a way to initiate becoming a higher-purpose organization. Gartner's research found that creating a shared sense of purpose is the "new employment deal." Gartner goes on to say, "The number of highly engaged employees increases to 60 percent when the organization acts on the social issues of today." Your employees care about their relationship to work, their leaders' involvement in societal, environmental, and cultural issues, and the organization's commitment to purpose demonstrated through measurable action.  

Is it easy to develop a shared purpose in an organization? No, it's not, but the benefits to people are enormous. If you want to be union-free going forward, it's time to recognize that workforce needs are changing and meet those needs on employee terms. It's a major shift in leadership perspective.  

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.