Building Purpose Through Listening

Anyone who knows me will, (I hope!) concur that I’m not a huge fan of the ever-expanding volume of corporate terminology that finds itself floating around. Sometimes simplicity is forgotten; sometimes a spade really is, just a spade, but in order to sound clever, verboseness is reverted to.

For many, there’s been a particular phrase that symbolises all that is unclear about corporate-speak – ‘employee engagement’ – two words that initially spoke to leaders about all the things they wanted to achieve, yet as time has passed, has morphed into meaning – well pretty much anything people want it to. As we all know, engagement has become a sort of catch-all that includes everything from ‘happiness’, to whether staff receive training, access to certain benefits, health and wellbeing plans, or like the culture they are part of (and much more). In short, it has become everything but nothing.

But, without wanting to further add to the Book of Buzzwords, I’m more and more convinced there’s a better term we should all be thinking about – one that I predict we’ll all be hearing a lot more of in 2017. This word is ‘purpose’.

This month, leadership guru Kevin Murray publishes his latest book – which, you guessed it, is all about this. In ‘People With Purpose’ Murray believes the creation of ‘purpose’ should be the task of all good leaders. Purpose, he argues is how the organisation makes people ‘feel’ – and it’s feeling good that he says creates engagement.

There are lots of measures that he says help people feel differently about their work. Leaders should, he says, communicate that the organisation has a higher purpose (such as being socially responsible, or locally beneficial), than just profit; that it needs to create a culture of belonging; and that people should be stretched and given goals that align to the strategy of that business. So far, so good. But there is another point he makes that particularly resonates with me. You can’t create purpose, he argues, without also promising to listen.

This is where I feel staff surveys, or data that looks at employee opinion can become useful again. After interviews with more than 30 leaders (at companies including ODEON, Yodel, Moss Bros and Virgin Atlantic), Murray finds that companies which best create a sense of purpose are not just those that have regular conversations with staff, but are also those that listen to what their staff actually have to say, and then do something about it.

In other words, purpose is arrived at through employers having a two-way – or a partnership-based conversation with their staff. When people know they’re being listened to, they don’t feel that what they do is in vain.  When these conversations are linked to a larger employer vision – a company strategy that involves staff in the next phase of their journey together – then organisations really can supercharge themselves.

So, when you’re thinking about what questions to include in research projects, why not ask what would make your people feel more connected to your wider goals, or whether they feel that what they do for eight hours a day matters to them. If you can start asking these questions, then already you’ll start creating what you might have hitherto been missing. It’s by creating purpose that you’ll really notice your engagement rise – however you define that to be.

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