How To Create A Legitimate Sense Of Purpose

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It’s no surprise that having a sense of purpose is a huge part of building culture. A sense of purpose helps employees feel connected to the organization and helps the organization make sure employees are doing their best work because they want to, not because they need to. But is this sense of purpose something the organization has to provide, or is it something that employees have to bring with them? The answer is both.

A big part of creating a sense of purpose comes down to self-awareness: employees must understand who they are, what they care about, and who they want to become. This not something that any organization can provide. However, organizations can help create a sense of purpose by focusing on two things: connecting the work that employees do back to the reason the organization exists and allowing employees to see the direct impact of their work.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy was visiting the NASA space center. While taking a tour he noticed a janitor. President Kennedy stopped the tour, walked over to the man, and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?” “Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” The janitor didn’t say he was cleaning the floors or emptying the trash. He felt like the work he was doing had a much greater impact. If you were to ask employees at your organization this same question, what sort of responses would you get?

Many years ago I worked at a movie theater concession stand. When selling products, we were always encouraged to upsell customers to get the larger popcorn and drink. We did this because we were told to, and at the end of each month, the person who upsold the most got a gift card. Where did the money go from upselling? What impact did we have on the business? Did customers appreciate this? We didn’t know anything except for the fact that we needed to try to get everyone to upgrade. Employees at the movie theater had no idea how what we did affected the company or the customers. The only training employees were given was about the tactical aspects of how to do their jobs, like how to make popcorn and ring up customers. Even though we were selling popcorn in a movie theater, the organization could have helped create a legitimate sense of purpose.

Let’s contrast that with the employees who work the concession stand at the San Diego Zoo. They are also asked to upsell customers, just like I was at the movie theatre. The difference is that at the San Diego Zoo, the employees know why they are doing it and what impact it has on the zoo’s animals and conservation efforts. These employees aren’t doing it because they get a gift card. They are doing it because they love animals and want to help take care of as many animals as the zoo can.

The connection between the actions and impact of employees starts with the hiring process. To achieve the vision of ending extinction, the zoo must ignite a passion for wildlife within the daily responsibilities of the employees. This goes beyond just hiring someone based on his or her ability to do the job; the zoo wants engaging and enthusiastic employees because it believes every person from food servers to scientists makes a difference in the wildlife.

Employees get immersed in the mission and vision of the zoo right away with new employee orientation where each employee is reminded that they can have a powerful influence on their guests, coworkers, and the public to join the fight to end extinction. The president and CEO of the San Diego Zoo tells employees, “Every zoo has lions, tigers, and bears. What they don’t have is you. It’s you who make us world famous!” The zoo also regularly shares animal welfare stories with employees to make the connection between work and impact. An email newsletter also shares the important achievements of employees and compliments from guests and teammates.

All retail employees participate in a training program that shows how their work directly contributes to the zoo’s vision of ending extinction. The program includes the value and importance of upselling and how the extra revenue contributes to the zoo’s mission. Employees know that the money from every extra burger sold and every upgraded drink will be used to help the zoo. That’s a legitimate sense of purpose.

In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant shares how helping people feel a sense of purpose improves productivity. He looked at employees who worked for a university fundraising center and were responsible for calling people and asking for contributions—a thankless and difficult job. Adam found that when these employees could actually meet someone who had benefited from their fundraising efforts, their weekly fundraising went up by over 400%. Making these connections and helping employees understand the impact they are having is the best way to help create that sense of purpose.

Build your employees’ sense of purpose by helping them feel like they are a part of the organization’s story. Showing them the impact of their work can make a huge difference and provide that legitimate sense of purpose employees crave.

Jacob Morgan is a best-selling author, speaker, and futurist. His new book, The Employee Experience Advantage (Wiley) analyzes over 250 global organizations to understand how to create a place where people genuinely want to show up to work. Visit TheFutureOrganization, get his free training series to create powerful Employee Experiences, or become a member of the new Facebook Community The Future If…and join the discussion.

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