Real Leaders

Do Your Employees Know Their ‘Why’?

Medium wide shot of male warehouse worker checking orders at computer work station in warehouse

In 2016, I held a learning exercise with 222 senior leaders from a sophisticated billion-dollar technology company. I asked attendees to jot down the company’s single-sentence corporate mission statement on an index card. Unfortunately, less than 2% of the leaders in attendance could do so.

I asked leaders to describe their job roles in five to seven bullet points on a second index card. The vast majority of responses, 86%, had to do with job functions, the duties and tasks associated with their roles: managing, staffing, problem-solving, forecasting, strategizing, traveling, etc.

Only 14% of the responses related to their job’s purpose, their single highest priority at work. These responses included relationship-building, delighting customers, and going the extra mile.

On a third index card, I asked the group to record their employees’ single highest priority at work. Roughly 70% of their responses were—you guessed it—about their employees’ job functions.

Later in the presentation, I revisited this question, suggesting that these leaders pose the question to employees: “What’s your single highest priority at work?”

Then I asked the group, “What would you want them to say?”

The group came alive as people shared aspirational responses they’d hope to hear from their teams, such as safety, customer service, quality, productivity, cost containment, and teamwork.

Then I asked the group, “But how would they know to say that?”

The room grew quiet as these leaders faced a sobering realization.

Employees model their leaders

Employees are pretty observant; they don’t miss much. The actions and behaviors they see modeled and the ideals their immediate supervisor appears to value will inform their decisions and behavior at work. If they see a management team that prioritizes tasks, efficiencies, and productivity (job functions), then that’s what they’ll focus on—often at the expense of the company’s own mission.

Jobs are more than ‘what’ and ‘how’

In every organization, there’s a systemic relationship between purpose (why we do something), the work itself (what we do), and the methods used (how we do it).

In the absence of a clearly defined “why we do something,” other priorities (usually job functions) fill the void. In these instances, employees go to work to reliably execute job assignments rather than with the mission to achieve a higher purpose. They’re given a task to work on rather than a purpose to work toward.

But work is more fulfilling when employees know that what they do makes a difference and that their jobs have purpose and meaning. This isn’t a romantic notion. In most organizations, purpose and meaning are elusive and difficult to define, measure, and pursue.

Why your employees don’t know their ‘why’

As my example above shows, leaders and managers who discount the relevance of meaning in the workplace may lack it themselves. And if these leadership teams are disconnected from their purpose at work, how can their subordinates reasonably be expected to reflect their purpose in their actions and behaviors consistently?

They can’t. Your employees don’t know their “why” for three very real reasons:

Job functions are visible and concrete. Managers can see them, touch them, and measure them daily. They are a real, relevant, and credible part of managers’ world of work, whereas job purpose is nebulous, abstract, difficult to see clearly, and tough to articulate. And it comes up only now and then (e.g., annual all-employee meetings, Customer Service Week, or new-hire orientations).

Ongoing conversations about job purpose are rare. We’re all too busy talking about job functions and concerning ourselves with quotas, productivity, and other metrics. Additionally, managers tend to focus almost exclusively on job functions because they’re what their bosses tend to focus on.

Job purpose is poorly defined—if at all. Job purpose is seldom articulated in words, modeled by leadership, or intentionally connected to employees’ daily job responsibilities. At most, it may be relegated to the employee handbook, a laminated wallet card, an annual report, the company website, or a plaque in the executive corridor.

Managers lack tools and processes that highlight job purpose. Because managers lack these tools, any early progress or enthusiasm following an event that showcases job purpose quickly loses momentum as job functions reassume center stage.

Creating job purpose starts with you

Reflect on your focus at work. What questions do you tend to ask? What priorities do you emphasize? What expectations do you convey? Consider your last meeting agenda. What percentage of it pertained to job functions versus job purpose? Creating purpose for your employees starts with you.

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