It is a given that so many vision and mission statements are watered down proclamations of the obvious. And yet, it is always startling to me when I see companies that are run by such smart people create visions and missions that do not in any way accomplish their purpose. The purpose of such things, of course, is to align the organization around where we are going and why in a way that people can emotionally connect to. And that is the key — an emotional connection. This is what is lacking in the vast majority of visions and missions, and this is what is now more important than ever.
It is a truism that, among many things, people are spiritual animals. And by that I mean that they crave a sense of purpose in their lives. People ask, “Why am I here? What is my purpose in this world?” For most people throughout history, those questions have been answered by their faith, their communities and their families. As we slowly transform into a post-family, post-community and post-religious world, the answers to the questions of why we are here, and what our purpose is, are no longer answered by a commitment to those institutions. Whether we like it or not, the fundamental social structures that have provided us with spiritual answers are less important and less fundamental than they have been for many thousands of years. As the intrinsic sense of value that these institutions provided for people declines, people — especially millennials — begin seeking value and purpose elsewhere.
Surveys of millennial workers show that, more and more, they are seeking work that provides them with a sense of value and purpose. This is a relatively new phenomenon. For most of humanity’s existence, the fundamental purpose of work was to provide for our families and communities. In other words, work was often a means to an end, not the end in itself. The purpose of life came from the fulfillment of our duty to our families and communities. The inverse is now becoming more prevalent. Work itself is now becoming the vehicle that provides purpose to the lives of many.
This shift has enormous implications, not the least of which being, from a business perspective, that organizations that best attend to the spiritual needs of their employees will gain a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talent. In other words, employers that can provide meaning and purpose to the lives of their employees will generate loyalty and discretionary effort beyond those that do not.
To many employers, this may seem like a bridge too far. We pay people to come to work and do a job. We are not in the business of attending to the spiritual needs of employees. This is quite true, but the new reality remains. As society changes and moves away from a system where our foundational social institutions provide for our spiritual welfare, people look for it elsewhere. And why would they not look for it at work? People spend a huge part of their lives at their workplaces (even if those workplaces are currently virtual). Why wouldn’t people look for meaning and purpose there, in addition to a paycheck? The fact is, organizations that have not sufficiently considered this new dynamic may find themselves behind the curve. Organizations that get this, and which have a clearly defined purpose, a vision of the future, a mission that people can emotionally connect to, and a strong sense of how their employees are fundamental to accomplishing the purpose of the business, can expect large returns.
Consider how important and motivating religion has been for most of humanity throughout history. And think about the lengths to which people will go when imbued with that kind of belief. I am not advocating the creation of a cult. But I am advocating for tapping into the natural need for people to believe that their lives have purpose. That they themselves have purpose. That the struggles of their everyday existence mean something in the grand scheme of things. Organizations can, and potentially should, leverage this perfectly natural need to not only elicit loyalty and discretionary effort, but also, and perhaps most important, to provide people with that sense of purpose in their lives.
However, if we are to accept that there are benefits to be reaped by purposefully positioning our organizations to help provide meaning and purpose, the endeavor is not without hazard. Consider the implications of that purposeful positioning. If we leverage people’s need for purpose, do we not position our organization as something worthy of loyalty? And worthy of providing purpose? In essence, we are led to create and live up to what I’ll call our “value and purpose proposition.” In a world where businesses and organizations become more relevant in providing purpose, we must expand our thinking from not only defining our value proposition (customer facing) but also defining our purpose proposition (employee facing). However, the potentially perplexing thing is that we are then called to live up to the purpose we portend to offer.
This is no small or inconsequential endeavor. As you know, visibly living up to our stated values may be the most difficult part of business. And yet, if we do not, we cannot offer ourselves as worthy of providing purpose, and we will quickly lose the loyalty of our employees. Think long and hard about this before proceeding! If you are not worthy of loyalty, don’t ask for it.
A value and purpose proposition is not necessarily a complicated thing. Consider a hospital setting. If the mission statement is simply, “We care for the sick,” then that can be positioned as both the value we provide to patients, but also the purpose we provide our employees. It is our value and purpose proposition as well as our mission and slogan. People in health care, for the most part, deeply wish to care for others. Framing the purpose proposition in such a way allows people to develop an emotional connection to the daily act of helping others. This is a powerful purpose that can easily provide meaning to people’s lives.
My advice for organizations is to dust off that vision and mission statement and make it into something beyond a watered-down proclamation of the obvious. Make it real. Make it emotional. Make if something from which your people can derive purpose and meaning. And live up to it — everyday. If you can’t figure out how to do that by yourself, find someone who can help. In the new world forming around us, work will become more and more a source of meaning and purpose in people’s lives, replacing community and religion as the primary source. That being the case, getting ahead of this curve and positioning yourself as a provider of purpose will reap rewards in loyalty, discretionary effort and recruiting. And it may just save your proverbial soul in the process.