How to do organizational purpose the right way for your people

Derek Newberry, senior director, org and culture design at Co:collective.

If being purpose-driven is all the rage, why do we seem more disengaged and disconnected than ever at work?

“Define your purpose.” A mantra that you would have expected to hear at a new age retreat is now coming out of the mouths of hardcore capitalists like Blackrock CEO Larry Fink. 

The imperative to make organizations meaningful is showing up in everything from marketing materials to employee wellness programs. But if being purpose-driven is all the rage, why do we seem more disengaged and disconnected than ever at work? 

To understand the disconnect, we can look back at a time when we expected there to be a clear demarcation between the “why” of work and our personal lives. In the industrial economy, it was understood that the purpose of a job was to pay the bills. It was a nakedly transactional relationship: performance in return for payment. Leisure time spent with friends, family and cherished hobbies was where people sought meaning and fulfillment.  

As employers gained a more nuanced understanding of human motivation, and needed to find new ways to attract talent, they began blurring these distinctions to make the most of their peoples’ potential. Every HR professional worth their salt went looking beyond performance incentives to tap into intrinsic sources of motivation to drive commitment and retention. 

But as the idea of work as a place of purpose has gained traction, so have the opportunities for abuse. Rather than getting rid of the necessarily transactional aspects of our work lives, it shows up as hidden forms of exploitation. I saw this firsthand in my earlier academic career, where I witnessed colleagues spending long hours giving free labor in the form of unpaid talks and research peer review — all toward the noble purpose of “advancing the field.”

When I made the leap into professional services, I found the explicitly transactional nature of the work refreshing. I understood that moving up from basic economy to business class, from sharing Best Western rooms with colleagues to rooming solo in the best hotels, wasn’t a gift out of the goodness of my clients’ hearts. The perks enabled me to recharge so I could devote more time and energy to solving their problems.  

But as a consultant, I’ve seen the stress and listlessness too many in the industry feel as they spend long days advising leaders on increasingly clever ways to squeeze cost out of their organizations, or money out of their consumers’ pockets, without a clear “why” behind the work.  How can we resolve these stubborn tensions? How can we combine the best of purpose and profit? 

Employers need what my undergrads would call a DTR moment with their people (Define The Relationship, for the *ahem* older and uninitiated). Organizations in the industrial economy treated people like robots. In the digital economy, organizations like to say they treat their employees like family. 

Instead, we should try treating people like adults. 

Healthy adult relationships are defined by clear, mutual terms of commitment. Leaders should be clear about what they expect from people, but also articulate what’s in it for them in terms that are meaningful to them — whether that be personal growth, bonuses or resume-building. With more people shuffling jobs, now is the ideal moment for organizations to revisit and redefine their value proposition for both sides of the employment equation.  

Adult relationships are also defined by transparency. Leaders too often play armchair psychologists, withholding information about organizational change out of fear that their people can’t handle the truth. While they mean well, this almost always backfires. Employees find out something is afoot, and the secrecy only serves to send the message that leaders don’t trust them enough to be honest and open.

Healthy relationships also have clear boundaries. A friend who calls with immediate demands any time of day or night likely won’t be in your life for long. Yet many of us have come to accept this always-on relationship with work by dressing up the endless demands of our jobs as “work-life integration.” 

It’s time for employers and employees to recognize that we’re both better off when we have clear boundaries. Employees need to know exactly what kind of commitment is expected of them, but they also need clarity on where those commitments end — and when it’s time to log off.  

We should all seek to make work more meaningful. But if we pretend that work isn’t still just work at the end of the day, it will come with the cost of burnout. Organizations can get the best of the push for purpose while treating employees more fairly — and ultimately keep them more engaged in the long run.

Derek Newberry is senior director, org and culture design at Co:collective.

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