Helping Employees Find the Higher Purpose in Their Work

Every company’s top executives should be able to explain in no more than a few sentences how the work of employees at every level of the organization helps improve the lives of individual customers or a whole community.

I made a career working in trade publications, which means my professional writing doesn’t have the focus I thought it would when I was in school. I thought I would write for consumer publications that spoke directly to people about everything from politics to the arts.

However, I am still able to find a higher purpose in my work. For example, at the healthcare trade publication, where I am now editor-in-chief, the readers are mostly the owners of small, independent practices. In other words, they are small business owners, who can use the information I give them to stay afloat in a world dominated by much larger, corporate-owned practices and healthcare organizations.

Similarly, at my first full-time job in my twenties, I was heartened when I first traveled to an industry conference and found that most of our readers were interesting, often creative, people who owned small direct-marketing companies. I found purpose in providing information that might help an underdog succeed.

Many employees are in the same position as me, doing work they hadn’t planned on to survive financially. But just as I did, it’s possible to find higher purpose, or idealism, in the work. You may need to help them find it, though. It’s worth making the effort to do that since the newer generations in the workforce have an even greater focus than previous generations, like mine, in finding purpose in the work they do, beyond just earning a living. Bruce Horovitz reported on this in a The Future of Work column in Time.

“Many workers no longer want to just do work—they want to do good. Some 70 percent of Americans say they define their sense of purpose through work, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Co. Millennials, in particular, are looking for opportunities in their work to contribute to what they believe is their wider purpose, the study suggested,” Horovitz writes.

Every job, even the ones that are the most directly focused on profit, have a higher purpose. The challenge for Learning and Human Resources professionals and managers is helping employees see what that higher purpose is. As I noted in this blog a few weeks ago, mission statements can help employees understand where their focus should be, the ultimate goal of their work. That focus should include not just keeping customers happy, but improving their lives. Every company’s top executives should be able to explain in no more than a few sentences how the work of employees at every level of the organization helps improve the lives of individual customers or a whole community. The ways your company’s products and services can best help people may change depending on the challenges of the moment. For instance, at a time when there are supply chain shortages and delays, and consumers are waiting for or spending more money on the products they use, how can your company help? Could you ramp up production or offer ways for consumers to find value and save money while still enabling your company to generate a profit?

For example, you could launch a new or revamped loyalty program that gives rewards in savings to those who purchase from you the most.

When new programs, intended to benefit both customers and the company, are launched, managers need to be trained on how to present the related work to employees. Rather than just assigning new work, or explaining that there will be a change in how work is done, the manager has to know how to put that new work into context. “As you may have heard, we are launching a new loyalty program for our customers. The program is going to both encourage repeat purchases from us and provide savings for our customers. With inflation causing prices to go up for all of us, and supply chain issues making it harder for people to find the products they want, we think this loyalty program will add convenience and savings advantages for people who need our help. Here are a few of the ways our work will be changing, so we can roll out this new program.”

Sometimes finding a higher purpose can be made easier if employees better understand the people the company serves. It’s easy to jump to false conclusions about who your customers are. In my case, I had assumed the people I wrote and edited articles for at my healthcare trade publication and the direct-marketing publication were much better off than I was. I initially had little sympathy for them. However, as I learned about their business’s financial challenges, and how most of these readers were also the employers of many people, my sympathy increased. I also found it inspiring that they were competing as independent businesses in a world of corporate outposts. I learned these things myself over years of work. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can teach employees on day one about who your customers are and why the work you do is important to their success, and maybe even how when they’re successful, the whole community benefits.

Do you train your employees about your company’s higher purpose? How do you do that? What has worked best for your organization in helping employees understand the importance of your work?