We’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about recent research we did on the Engagement Gap. The Engagement Gap is the gap between how executives value employee engagement, and how ineffective most companies have been at building it. After churning through hundreds of surveys, we found four elements that were very strongly correlated with high employee engagement. We’ve written about the first three: respect for executives, pride in working for the company, and a positive organizational culture. Now for the fourth and most powerful element – a belief that your work matters.
On the survey, we asked if employees felt that their work mattered to the company, to their customers, and to some larger cause. We collected all the people who said yes to each and looked at their average level of engagement. We did the same for the people who said no. We looked for a difference. We expected to see the most dramatic difference between those who did or did not believe that their work matters to a larger cause. Not quite. The numbers here are vivid. Believing that your work matters to the company more than doubles how you rate your own employee engagement. Belief that your work matters to customers and/or to a larger cause also has a significant correlation to your employee engagement, but the impact is slightly smaller than for the basic belief that your work matters to the company.
So yes, we do need people to believe that their work has purpose. We need employees to know that their efforts make a big difference to their customers. But the most fundamental thing we need to do is to ensure that employees know that their work matters to the success of the company. And of course, that the company understands and appreciates it.
Showing that work matters to the company
How can you ensure your employees know how their work matters to the company?
The more the work of the organization is clear and apparent to everyone, the more opportunity everyone has to be aware of what’s going on. The more they understand what’s going on, the more confident they will be that what they do is relevant.
The more people work out loud – especially executives and management - the more people will trust that they know what’s going on and how they fit into it. Executives can take this further by constantly making sure they are actively connecting the dots for people. They should be talking about how people and teams are contributing to the goals of the company every time they talk about those teams or those goals.
A map of how it fits together
People need to know how their efforts are contributing to the core goals and priorities of the company. How does my work fit into the big picture? This should be explicitly clear to everyone at all times. Leadership should talk about goals in terms of how employees are helping to meet them.
Employees also need to know how the different pieces of the organization fit together. When someone has that big picture, they can find their place in it. They can tune their effort, their questions, and their cooperation around the priorities of executives and aligning with the work of others.
The more people connect and relate to one another as peers, the more they understand how the organization fits together. This is especially true of teams that work in different locations, in different time zones and with different skills. Work that matters to the company is also work that matters to the people of the company. People connecting with one another, seeing one another’s work and conferring with one another on their own work, makes work matter.
Many executives make the mistake of stating goals and priorities on a quarterly or even an annual basis and thinking that they’ve communicated clearly. They might've spent weeks working on them, so they do a presentation, post a PowerPoint somewhere, and think they are done.
Engaging executives discuss these goals and priorities every day. They’re sharing their ideas in public forums – on the intranet or blog – and bringing those goals and priorities – along with the values they use to inform decisions – to every discussion and every decision. When you ask people in those organizations what the priorities are, they aren’t reciting from memory, they just know.
When people are engaged with things, they think about them, they talk about them. If you’re engaged with your employees, you talk to them and they you. They talk to each other. You ask questions of one another, you show your appreciation for one another. You treat each other well. You’re a team.
What about purpose?
Purpose does motivate people. Daniel Pink brilliantly describes the impact of believing that your work matters to a greater cause in this TED talk. The purpose of your company can’t only be about generating profits for its shareholders. It needs to be about doing something valuable in the world, and making the world a better place for some people in some way.
The value of a clear and aspirational purpose to your company goes even beyond employee engagement. This is the kind of purpose that galvanizes teams and provides a long term strategic value for your company, not just today, but over the decades. It’s the north star for your innovation, the emotional core that motivates both employees and customers. Work that matters to the company is only the first step. Work that really matters is the journey of an organization and all of its people over time.