Making a Difference: What Higher Purpose Does Your Company Serve?

By Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin

When employees believe that their efforts make a difference, they feel that their work has an impact on the organization, and that their personal presence in the workplace (independent of their job description) also makes a difference, we find that people take pride in their work and the accomplishment of organizational goals and functions.

Making a difference operates on two levels.

The first: employees believe they have an impact in their actual job or sphere of responsibility. As a Microsoft employee put it, “Microsoft is a really big company. When people think about working at Microsoft they don’t feel that they are going to have a lot of influence. The reality is, if you want to have a lot of influence, if you want to have a large project, that’s very possible.”

The other level: employees believe they themselves actually matter in the organization, beyond their narrow function. As employees at Camden, the community managers, offered of their leadership, “They figure everyone here is an important asset. It’s not just [the] work, but you feel like you are really a part of Camden and that every person really matters.”

In both cases, employees are describing a sense of personal authority at work. What this means is that they are empowered to take things on, make decisions, and see the results of their work. They feel like they can make a difference because they are able to actually see the difference they make.

Camden prides itself in creating a community for those who live at their properties, so it was in keeping with the Camden philosophy that one employee came up with the idea to plan a pet expo. When describing this example of positive influence, the employee said, “The next thing you know, I am in charge of this regional event and they are giving me cards and telling me to order supplies and get volunteers from other communities, and I was just so empowered and it was just such a proud moment that they trusted me and I felt trusted, and it was such a fun, awesome event.” And this employee isn’t in the marketing department!

When employees have this sense of personal authority, they usually have the freedom to move beyond a specific job role or task; employees can exercise some degree of creativity and innovation, and leave their own marks. There is an appropriate amount of both challenge and support, such that an employee experiences a sense of competence with the work.

Significantly, they are validated for their efforts. As a leader, you can support people in feeling like they matter by providing them the room and autonomy to “take the ball and run with it,” providing positive and constructive feedback along the way, and recognizing such efforts when they happen.

Leaders can also look at an organization’s values and structure — do conditions exist that support employees’ sense of making a difference?

Google’s core values, for instance, are oriented toward impressing upon every employee the importance of his or her role in the larger picture. They believe that their people truly do matter, not only to Google, but to the world.

Another Google condition: they have a relatively flat organizational structure that promotes a comfortable environment to share ideas. This structure enables all members to directly participate in the implementation of numerous products and policies, instilling a sense of empowerment among employees. This kind of purposeful structuring of the work environment helps employees say, “I can do this!” Employees feel like their work and personal contributions matter to Google.

Meaningful work

The other aspect of personal pride is employees’ belief that their work has special meaning. In this case, people’s actual work gives them a sense that they are contributing to something special.

Not only does the employees’ work matter to the company, but their part in the company’s work matters to the world. This pride may come from the knowledge that their personal skills are being put to use in ways that benefit the greater good, or that the service they provide is of great value to other employees, clients, or the community. In some cases, this sense of meaning is palpable to employees.

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In the role of nurse, insurance adjuster, or pharmaceutical researcher, for instance, it is abundantly clear on a daily basis that one’s work matters. In other cases, the leader must help to make the connection between an employee’s work and the greater good.

As a leader, you can support employees’ sense of meaningful or purposeful work by explicitly making the link between their jobs and some tangible or important outcome. One of the biggest missed opportunities for leaders is in failing to help employees “connect the dots” between their day-to-day responsibilities and the success of the work group or the organization.

It can be as simple as asking employees “How did you change the world this week?” rather than “What cities did you visit while on the road?” As the saying goes, “People will work for money, but they live for meaning.” And we have yet to find a company in which leaders can’t find a way to accomplish connecting the dots for employees if they want to. A couple of examples illustrate this point:

  • Agilent is a measurement company with expertise in electronic and bio-analytical measurement applications. The vision of the company is “To save lives and help people communicate.” So whether it’s testing 70 percent of all cell phones in the world (so that the handsets are perfect), or testing the air in the coal mines of China (so that they detect deadly gases, and hence save lives), knowledge of the life-or-death difference employees make is behind the efforts of each and every employee. Their internal website has pages full of stories about how their products help save lives and help people communicate. Employees are encouraged to read those stories and learn how their efforts contribute to our world.
  • At Principal Financial Group, leaders at every level strive to help employees understand their role in the company’s success. Leaders are provided with “Hot Topics for Leaders” kits with presentation templates, talking points, quizzes, and other resources to help employees better understand how their jobs support the company’s mission. The company holds contests encouraging employees to work with their leaders and write down how they contribute to each of the company’s high-level initiatives. In one campaign, employees made and submitted videos showing how their roles affect the lives of customers, shareholders, and others.
  • Medtronic manufactures medical devices, then delivers them to hospitals, so employees don’t often have the benefit of interacting with the end-users or customers. So the company holds all-employee meetings and invites patients who received a device to come and share their stories. Often emotionally moving, these meetings allow employees to meet people who benefit from their work, and to see the impact of their efforts on patients’ lives and well-being.

Perhaps your organization does not make medical devices, or isn’t a health care organization. Perhaps your organization’s mission is not to save the planet or change the world. Perhaps the people you lead have really difficult, demanding jobs that do not seem all that glamorous. Your response to these examples may be, “Well, that’s all well and fine, but not where I work.”

But it is important to realize that every organization makes products or offers services that are needed somewhere by someone or by some other group. The important thing is to understand why the products or services are necessary and what they enable other people or organizations to do as a result of them. Often, considering the secondary or tertiary implications of what your products or services do is a way to identify the meaningfulness in the work.

We once went to visit The J.M. Smucker Company — marketers and manufacturers of fruit spreads, retail packaged coffee, and peanut butter, among other products — in Orrville, Ohio. We talked with employees during the facility tour.

One of the line operators, when asked what her role was, exclaimed, “I help bring families together” — a nod to the company’s stated purpose of “Bringing Families Together to Share Memorable Meals and Moments.” She saw the third- and fourth-order implications of her work and its potential impact on the lives of families that consume Smucker products.

As a leader, consider the ways in which you can connect the dots. Smucker brings families together through their products. What higher purpose does your organization serve in the world?

Excerpted from The Great Workplace: How to Build It, How to Keep It, And Why It Matters by Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin. Copyright © 2011 by The Great Places to Work Institute, Inc. Published by Josey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA. 94103. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Michael Burchell is a corporate vice president with the Great Places to Work Institute and a partner in the Institute's UAE affiliate. Prior to joining the Institute he focused on workplace development issues at W.L. Gore & Associates. Jennifer Robin is a Research Fellow at the Great Place to Work Institute. She currently teaches at Bradley University.