If your employees don’t have a purpose at work, they’ll leave

If the tumult of 2020 has prompted your organization or leadership team to reconsider people priorities such as employee well-being, resilience, or purpose, then you’re in good company.

Your employees are reconsidering you, too.

Nearly two-thirds of US-based employees we surveyed said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. And nearly half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic. Millennials were three times more likely than others to say that they were reevaluating work.

Such findings have implications for your company’s talent-management strategy and its bottom line. People who live their purpose at work are more productive than people who don’t. They are also healthier, more resilient, and more likely to stay at the company. Moreover, when employees feel that their purpose is aligned with the organization’s purpose, the benefits expand to include stronger employee engagement, heightened loyalty, and a greater willingness to recommend the company to others.

Nonetheless, if you’re like most senior executives, you haven’t given the individual purpose of your employees much thought. The topic is intensely personal, potentially inaccessible to employers, and seemingly as uncomfortable to discuss as it is to actively encourage.

Despite these challenges, our research found that 70 percent of employees said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work. So, like it or not, as a company leader you play an important part in helping your employees find their purpose and live it. And you have your work cut out: our survey also found disparities in how frontline employees and other groups feel supported—or thwarted—in living their purpose at work.

In this article, we describe the role that work can play in individual purpose, highlight what employees want from employers and what they aren’t getting, and describe what you can start doing about it. The prize? If you get this right, you can help your company become a better place to work and tap the enormous business potential of a purposeful workforce aligned with a purpose-driven organization.

But be careful: purpose is not just “another corporate initiative.” You can’t mandate this. And if you approach your people with inconsistency, hypocrisy, or arrogance, you will likely do the organization—and your reputation—more harm than good.

Understanding purpose at work

To understand the challenge, we surveyed more than a thousand US employees about individual purpose and the work and life outcomes associated with it. 1 The survey is part of an ongoing McKinsey research effort to better understand the role of purpose in organizations.

Before exploring the findings, though, it’s useful to consider the context in which individual purpose operates at work, as well as the unique challenges it presents for employers. Individual purpose can be thought of as an enduring, overarching sense of what matters in a person’s life; people experience purposefulness when striving toward something significant and meaningful to them. There are clear patterns, or purpose archetypes, that help employers categorize what people find meaningful, but ultimately someone’s purpose can be as varied as people themselves.

The upshot is that while companies and their leaders can have a big influence on the individual purpose of their employees, they have limited direct control over it. Companies therefore need to meet employees where they are in order to help them optimize their sense of fulfillment from work.

To better understand how to accomplish this, consider the conceptual relationship between an individual’s purpose and their work, as depicted by the three concentric circles in Exhibit 1. Everyone’s purpose may be unique, but some part of it—large or small—comes from forces outside work, just as some part comes from the daily work itself. These are the outermost and middle circles, respectively, and they vary in proportion to each other from person to person.

If an employee gets very little purpose from their work, the size of the middle circle will be smaller. By contrast, if another person finds their work very purposeful, it will be larger. Intuitively, then, the size of the middle circle represents the portion of one’s purpose that is accessible by work—and also how much purpose employees want from their work—and it may grow or shrink. Employers should view this middle circle as a target they strive to understand and meet. They should influence the expansion of this circle if they can.

The innermost circle (purpose from the organization) depicts the company’s means of influence; it’s the only aspect of purpose that organizations control. How so? By establishing a corporate purpose that considers the company’s role and contribution to society, and by providing employees with meaningful ways to reflect on the company’s efforts and their impact. Companies can also exert influence by improving the underlying health of the organization and its culture, bolstering inclusiveness and the employee experience, and changing the work itself.

As a company leader, you want to see the organization’s relatively small sphere of influence expand to match the size of the employee’s own sense of purpose from work (the middle circle). The closer the company gets, the more fulfilled the employee is. Moreover, a closer match earns the company more opportunities for employees to seek—and expect—more purpose from work, and to feel more aligned with the organization’s purpose.

The operative word here is “earn.” Remember that when it comes to purpose, you have access only to what your people grant you access to. Your first task is to learn what they want, and then to see if they’re getting it.


Source: McKinsey