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Helen Rosethorn



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Employee engagement: why it’s time for HR to step up and deliver on ‘purpose’


Organisations today aren’t just about making money – they’re about delivering on a ‘purpose’, and HR has a crucial role to play in this.

There seems to be a ‘purpose revolution’ going on right now. Organisations, very often through their brands, are seeking to engage us through the difference they want to make to the world.

We tend to credit the search for purpose with millennials struggling with trust, redefining loyalty and searching for meaning in the workplace.

Yet when you dig into the views of the multiple generations now working in most large companies, you find the search for meaning is not exclusively a millennial one.

We all want to talk with pride about what drives our employer and how together we deliver something that counts in the world beyond pounds and dollars.

To be seen as having a credible purpose is to be trusted and aiming to do the right thing. It’s no surprise then, with stories of rotten company cultures like Carillion and Hollywood’s sexual harassment cases triggering the #MeToo movement, that organisational intent and leaders’ behaviours have been brought into question.

Becoming purposeful

Against this backdrop, whose responsibility is it to make purpose real within any organisation?

This was one of a myriad of questions we asked as part of extensive research carried out with 400 business leaders and, in many ways, the response was encouraging: the CEO or MD coming out top followed closely by those working in ‘strategy’.

However, HR was bottom of the list and, more worryingly, when we split respondents to reveal organisations who were more purpose-led, HR dropped even further.

It could be that in more purpose-led organisations there is a stronger perception of ownership at the top. As the champions of culture within any organisation, HR should be credited with a more fundamental role.

Where employees not only understand purpose but are also empowered to use it with a sense of collective responsibility, that’s when it comes to life.

After all, if leaders are seen to be the role models who set the tone, it is HR that provides those frameworks and that guide those behaviours and development. At the same time, it also often acts as the catalyst for the definition of values and the embedding of those values into people processes.

The fundamentals of delivering purpose

Let’s call out values. As for many of those who took part in the research and particularly as the more purposeful organisations identified, values were something that lived hand-in-hand with delivering on purpose.

The conclusions of our research were very clear – that becoming purposeful requires commitment to four fundamentals, all of which HR can strongly influence.

  1. When purpose is rooted in truth, it takes root

    The purposeful organisations we came across had invested in the development of a credible, meaningful purpose through an honest and rigorous examination of why, at its best, their organisation really mattered and to whom.

    For some it took them back to their roots, but for all it questioned the conventions that the only thing that mattered was shareholder return and/or financial aims.

  2. Purpose only takes hold when leaders take hold of purpose

    In the most purposeful organisations, where culture and purpose are aligned, leaders are fully engaged with purpose and are the key owners.

    Leaders, of course, role model culture and therefore if employees at large see leaders enacting purpose, they will too.

  3. Purpose needs room to breathe

    Where purpose jostles for space with a gaggle of other organisational or brand ‘constructs’ it struggles.

    Competing ideas such as vision, mission and ambition bring complexity and confusion.

    In organisations where purpose is elevated as a ‘north star’ supported by values that guide people towards it, purpose was not just a rallying cry but at the heart of their cultural engine.

  4. Purpose is for every day

    Where employees not only understand purpose but are also empowered to use it with a sense of collective responsibility, that’s when it comes to life.

    People in an organisation need not just to be talking about it, but sensing it in what they do and, more importantly, what they decide to do on a day-to-day basis.

A new age

Traditional organisational thinking is based on the view that what drives employees to perform is money and influence – and probably growing amounts of both as you progress.  

Some of what has been bubbling up in employee research for a number of years now is challenging this binary construct.

Again, helping leaders to understand not just the future of work but the changing drivers of employee motivation is something that HR should be actively spearheading.

Those HR leaders who are really helping to dig into what drives motivation, learning and performance, are the ones who are helping their organisations to lay the foundation for becoming truly purposeful.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Read HR has a responsibility and a right to be the soul and purpose of the business.

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Helen Rosethorn


Read more from Helen Rosethorn

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