Next time you need a quick break, take a walk through your company’s office space. What’s the mood like? Are your employees engaged, excited, and inspired? Or are they tuned out, tapping away on iPhones and counting down the minutes until they can head home? If you see the latter, it could be because your employees don’t connect their day-to-day work with any greater meaning. Employees who find meaning in their work are more likely to exhibit higher levels of motivation, engagement, and greater job performance — which means employees motivated by a larger sense of meaning are great for the company overall.[1. “More Than Job Satisfaction,” http://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/12/job-satisfaction.aspx] But how do you encourage employees to find meaning in their work? By tapping into your company’s shared sense of purpose.
If your employees believe that they’re just clocking in and out of a job everyday, that won’t translate to a positive organizational culture, and you’ll have a lot harder time creating high-achieving teams. Millennials in particular want to work for companies that share their sense of purpose, and in roles they find personally fulfilling. And since millennials now represent the largest share of the workforce, their purpose-driven desires can’t be ignored. As a business leader, you can adopt these two strategies to help your employees see the bigger picture for the company, so that they can tap into your organization’s shared sense of purpose.
Chances are you’ve hitched a flight on Southwest Airlines (it’s one of the most popular airlines for business class travel). And chances are you’ve been impressed with the service you received. Southwest’s top-notch reputation for service comes in part from the company’s dedication to developing a shared sense of purpose. Southwest goes above and beyond to highlight employees who truly embody the purpose of the airline — high quality customer service delivered with warmth, individual pride, and company spirit — by highlighting exceptional employees in their media. In addition to this touching video about the company’s mission that prominently features employees, every month an employee and his or her story of exceptional service are featured in the pages of Southwest’s Spirit magazine. The result? Southwest received one of the top scores for overall customer satisfaction in the airline industry in the J.D. Power 2014 North America Airline Satisfaction Study and earned the Glassdoor Employee’s Choice Award, recognizing Southwest as one of the best places to work.[2. “Southwest Airlines Motivates Its Employees With a Purpose Bigger Than a Paycheck,” http://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2014/01/21/southwest-airlines-motivates-its-employees-with-a-purpose-bigger-than-a-paycheck/] In short, Southwest’s strategy leads to more purpose-driven employees, which leads to many more happy customers.
Why is it a smart tactic to acknowledge employees who live and breathe the company purpose? It comes down to the psychological tenant of vicarious reinforcement. The term “vicarious reinforcement” refers to our tendency to repeat or duplicate behaviors for which others are being rewarded. When your employees see a particular team member receiving praise from the CEO for his or her can-do attitude, they will be more likely to adopt similar attitudes and actions. In fact, seeing others receive praise or attention for a certain behavior increases a person’s tendency to repeat the behavior almost as much as if he were being rewarded himself.[3.“We All Need Role Models to Motivate and Inspire Us,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201311/we-all-need-role-models-motivate-and-inspire-us] To get the most bang for your buck, be sure to acknowledge employees in a variety of ways. Formal avenues like a newsletter that highlights employee achievements can help to impart a greater sense of importance to employee praise. Be sure, though, to give informal recognition for purpose-driven behavior as well — like giving a shout out to a team member at the beginning of a meeting — since not all employees pay attention to formal communication channels.
Case studies about how companies have garnered amazing results aren’t just good for gaining more customers. Customer-focused stories can also uplift employees. This second strategy uses the process of “cognitive restructuring,” in which employees increase job satisfaction by reframing how they think about their work, and finding how they contribute to “the bigger picture.” This bigger picture essentially boils down to how the company improves the lives of its clients or customers, a vital part of every company’s purpose. Highlighting customer success stories makes it easier for employees to see a bigger picture and the part they play.
This cognitive restructuring strategy works especially well for employees in entry-level, repetitive, or low-status positions within a company. Business psychologist Michael Stegner recounts an example of an unhappy accountant who found meaning in her work at a community college, not by reveling in keeping the books balanced, but by reminding herself that her work was helping people pursue higher education. When she focused on the end-client — in this case, college students — she was truly able to see and serve the greater purpose of the college. It’s important for companies to highlight how they serve their customers because not all employees are customer-facing, so a large swath of your workforce may have a huge disconnect between the work they do and how it benefits other people. To help your employees see the larger picture of how your company serves its customers, try incorporating customer stories into internal employee communications, alongside stories of employee accomplishment. Another strategy would be to hold periodic customer appreciation events and invite employees as well — and make sure you invite the employees in your organization who might be especially susceptible to “missing” the bigger picture due to the nature of their job roles, like secretaries or junior-level employees. Face time with your customers will go a long way toward reminding your employees why the work they do is so valuable, and customers will benefit from seeing the people who work hard for them “behind the scenes” every day.
To instill a sense of purpose in your employees, you must have some sort of purpose statement to begin with, and an effective one. We’ve often seen, however, that business leaders get bogged down with the task of defining their company with statements like these, even though they’re vital to company cohesion and growth. If you need help with strategic planning — crafting your company’s mission, vision, purpose, and more — get in touch with our experts today.