Inspiring Employees through Organizational Purpose: Potent but Fragile

Working together

One of the core ideas in HOW is that organizations that are able to inspire their workforce outperform others that are reliant on coercion or motivation, which can shift behavior (i.e. they can elicit obedience, discipline, rule-following), but do not elevate or inspire the kinds of behaviors that are essential in the modern workplace (e.g. compassion, collaboration, creative innovation).

So how can organizations inspire employees so that they can experience these elevated behaviors? HOW argues that one important way this inspiration happens is through a strong sense of shared purpose and mission-driven goals. And indeed, a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article by Birkinshaw, Foss, and Lindenberg found that one of the strongest ways to engage and inspire employees is through a sense of organizational purpose. The authors conducted a five-year program of research examining how companies sustained a sense of purpose, conducting more than 80 in-person interviews with executives from large companies such as Guardian News & Media, IKEA, Lego Group, Novo Nordisk, Whole Foods Market, and W.L. Gore.

What they found was that a few key principles helped companies maintain their purpose over time as they also achieved strong profitability. They note that these principles are built on a view known as goal-framing theory, which they believe explains why “pro-social” goals – goals that “involve working towards common causes that go beyond just making money and staying in business” – are stronger motivators within organizations than “self-interested” goals.

According to the theory, people have a major area of concern at any given moment that shapes their goals and leads them to focus more on particular aspects of their work and less on others. People become focused on hedonic goals when they seek to feel good, leading them to pay particular attention to the fun aspects of their jobs. When the major concern involves income or promotions, people will concentrate on those areas of their work that are most directly tied with these gain goals. And when people are focused on promoting a common objective, they will favor this pro-social goal over other concerns for fun, income, or position.

Birkinshaw, Foss, and Lindenberg explain that the strength of these goals for employees are influenced by individual differences between people, but that “a much stronger influence is typically the immediate stimuli employees receive from those around them in their working environment and from their superiors.” So if the talk of the office is the size of individuals’ bonuses, then the gain goal will overshadow others. Since “many companies want their employees to help the organization realize common goals,” the question is how to make pro-social goals more salient and important for employees.

Birkinshaw and company recommend the following (among other suggestions in their full article):

  •  Pro-social goals require support systems in order to stick. “We know that people take cues from those around them, but…gain and hedonic goals can quickly drive out pro-social goals.” So a key is to build a “wealth of supporting systems” to help “operationalize pro-social goals at different levels, and thereby make them stick.”
  •  For example, one of Whole Foods Market’s pro-social goals is to promote the health and happiness of their employees. To support this objective, the company offers a voluntary Healthy Discount Incentive Program, where employees can earn additional store discounts beyond the 20% that workers already receive. What qualifies team members for this additional discount? Reaching certain criteria in cholesterol levels, body mass index, blood pressure, and abstaining from nicotine.
  •  Consistency in the support system of pro-social goals. “Such consistency matters because it signals that management is sincere.” On a related note, “one important form of supporting system is to incorporate tangible manifestations of the company’s pro-social goals into the day-to-day work of employees.” For example, Novo Nordisk has new employees spend a day with diabetes’ patients because “many back-office employees lose touch with their company’s raison d’etre, so this is a good way of making it visible.”
  •  Pro-social goals need a “counterweight” to survive. “Even with the types of supporting systems described above, it is quite common to see executives bowing to short-term financial pressures. Thus a key factor in creating enduring pro-social goals is a ‘counter-weight,’ by which we mean any institutional mechanism that exists to enforce a continued focus on a nonfinancial goal.” For example, U.K. retailer John Lewis’s counterweight is an employee council that enables employees to be represented as owners of the company, while conglomerate Tata Group’s counterweight are family-founded trusts that account for 66% of the company’s equity, the profits of which are spent on charitable causes such as improving literacy, clean water, and health care.

The methods that Birkinshaw, Foss, and Lindenberg describe are all methods to systematically inspire people towards pro-social goals, as opposed their hedonic or gain counterparts. In view of how difficult it can be to sustain a focus on pro-social goals – especially in competition with hedonic and gain goals – Birkinshaw and company’s study offers valuable insight into how companies can help elevate the behaviors of employees through a strong sense of purpose.

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