Meet Purpose, the New Black

On July 25, 2016, in HRExaminer, by David Kippen

Dr. David Kippen, HRExaminer.com Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Dr. David Kippen, HRExaminer.com Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

Meet Purpose, the New Black

There’s been a lot of talk about engagement since at least 2008. For the first few post-crisis years the focus seemed to be on doing more with less and engagement was the new black. You had one job to do. Three people left the company. You were happy to survive, so you and your remaining coworker took on an additional 1.5 full-time employee’s-worth of work. Corporations and employees put the best face on this. Together, surviving companies, teams and individuals t on engagement as a virtue. Everyone rowed hard, sang from the bottom of their lungs, and didn’t complain about their blisters. They were glad to be above water, focused on staying that way and—by and large—were not very sentimental about the empty desks.

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better…

The time for that talk is over. The US is now at least seven years past the bottom of the recession. And though other countries continue to suffer from unemployment (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy), currency devaluation (Russia), economic stagnation (Germany, France, UK) and a variety of other self-inflicted wounds, (Brazil, Argentina, China, Japan, Russia again), the US has been posting strong economic figures for quite a long time. By the fifth year since bottom, there were signs that the economy was back on a sound footing—at least from a labor standpoint—and that workers were getting tired of ignoring their blisters.

From July to September 2014, the economy grew at 5%, the best rate since 2003. In November of that year, the US posted a truly impressive 321,000 increase in hires across job types, led by professional services, retail, health care and manufacturing. And though the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 5.8%, early trends in holiday spending and consumer confidence seem strong and getting stronger. But despite a good holiday season, turbulence in the markets meant the mood of the workforce remained unsettled through 2015.

“Recovery,” meet “Recovered”

2016, however, has been a different year entirely. Never mind the three-ring political circus playing out on both sides of the Atlantic; the greatest show on earth continues to be the delicate dance between labor and management. The combination ofincreased confidence,increased spending and rebounding corporate profits we began to see in 2013 has continued unabated. The aching feeling that that “others got theirs…where’s mine?” is the red meat linking the populism of the Trump and Sanders campaigns with Brexit and other nationalisms in Europe and beyond. In our view, provided nothing catastrophic happens (bond market and Britain, we’re looking at you), these forces are likely to hammer the final nail into the coffin of employee engagement.

What does this mean? At the very least, if you’ve been running engagement campaigns it means it’s time to stop and to make an intentional shift from “engagement” to “purpose.” Engagement has always been about an individual’s willingness to give extra and discretionary effort to the organization for the greater good. But the time for giving this gift to corporations has passed. It’s time for corporations to “pay it forward,” because the new black is giving back. Clearly that’s not just a mandate for HR. While HR can ask the workforce to give effort, this reverses the tide. So focus on communicating what your corporate foundation, other forms of philanthropy, employee giving and volunteering programs get done. And if possible, decentralize decision-making so that employee voices also have a say in the good the organization does.

Higher Purpose

There’s a larger mandate here, too, one that many Silicon Valley companies and other for-profit but mission driven companies have in their DNA of necessity: a higher purpose. Simply put, your higher purpose answer the question, “what’s your company on this earth to do besides make money?” And it implies the answer to another one: “why is it’s purpose something an employee should be willing to dedicate years of their lives to bringing to fruition?”

If you have a clear answer, are you communicating it? If not, if your organization’s higher purpose is not clear to you, it’s likely not to be clear to your colleagues, either. And that’s both a problem and an opportunity. While “what’s your higher purpose?” isn’t a back-of-the-napkin question, you can start having productive conversations by asking yourself and others these questions (and others like them) about your company:

  • When the history of this time—and your industry—is written, what will the entry about your company say? How have you made the world better?
  • How widely understood is your higher purpose?
  • What is your company doing to help connect your workforce with it?Does everyone know how their own work meaningfully contributes to the purpose we serve?

Why Purpose?

Beyond paying bills, most of us seek meaningful work because we seek meaningful lives. Most of us seek to contribute to a greater good. And all of us deeply resent being taken advantage of. So these are important, even vital questions as the era of crisis recedes. They’ll engage leadership in productive, long-range conversations that logically and usefully build on—or lead to—corporate strategy. And they invite contributions from every level in the organization so they can be a strong catalyst for the kinds of dialogue that hierarchy makes difficult in other areas (because unlike other corporate assets, the future belongs to all of us in equal measure). At the simplest level, the shift from engagement to purpose is, quite paradoxically, a shift from scarcity to optimism. Messages about engagement can never escape their functional roots in a context of asking more of each so we can all make due with less. Messages about purpose will always be about selecting among the best of the possible futures available to us. It’s the most powerful form of optimism to share the opportunity not only to dream, but to do that of which we dream.

 
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