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Stop Engaging - Start Fulfilling: A New Era of Employee Engagement


Employee engagement is fading fast.

For decades, employee engagement has been the cornerstone of “doing good” as a company, but it’s in decline for the first time since 2012, according to a study by Aon Hewitt. Considering that a company’s human capital is arguably its most valuable asset, this is a disturbing trend.

While some companies are on the brink of change and are starting to shift how they approach employee engagement, others are pioneering a new way of making their employees purpose-driven advocates for their mission. But to be successful, all need to understand that merely “engaging” employees can no longer be the focus: We are entering an era of employee fulfillment.

To understand this shift, we spoke to members of the Purpose Collaborative, North America’s largest community of purpose, corporate responsibility, and sustainability experts. Their insights, summarized below, illuminate the impact of people- and purpose-centric businesses.

1. Understand employee motivations

“The ability to inspire employees is much more important than just engaging them.” Aaron Hurst, CEO of Imperative, asserts that breakthrough companies have moved beyond mere engagement, and are using purpose to inspire and fulfill their people.

To illustrate the distinction, he presents two employees:

  • The Purpose-Oriented Individual works primarily for fulfillment and to serve others.

  • The Work-Oriented Individual works primarily for money and status.

More employees are falling into the former category – and they’re not just Millennials. While 30 percent of Millennials and 38 percent of Gen Xers are purpose-oriented, Baby Boomers lead at 48 percent, as noted in Imperative’s Global Purpose Index.

Overall, 37 percent of people prioritize purpose when job hunting, and 35 percent are open to it. These purpose-oriented workers are 64 percent more likely to find fulfillment in their jobs, and 73 percent more likely to be satisfied in their jobs – if your company can deliver.

2. Activate the individual

“Many companies activate purpose at the organization level, not the individual or team level,“ Hurst says. This idea of operating and communicating on a human-to-human level – and not through layers of management – is leading the shift from engaging to fulfilling employees.

“Individual activation is absolutely critical, but is one of the least explored frontiers of employee engagement,” says business leadership expert Dr. John Izzo. “Activating individuals will work best in organizations where it’s already working at the leadership level. If the senior people aren’t creating that culture, fulfillment and purpose will not come to fruition.”

It’s not enough for executives to “set the standard” and expect their good deeds and messaging to simply trickle down. In almost all businesses, employees will outnumber leadership, making their collective voice the most powerful driver of purpose and shared mission. Think of employee engagement as a flat hierarchy – one by which individual voices are weighted equally and communication is transparent multi-directional. When the individual has as much “skin in the game” as the CEO, the sense of fulfillment – and social and business impacts – can soar.

“It’s time to move away from theory and quantify more success stories of driving purpose and values through an organization,” says Scott Beaudoin, Chief Strategy Officer at RF Binder.

3. Cultivate personal purpose

“If the culture of an organization doesn’t support people in the right way, the sense of purpose goes way down the list,” notes Henry Playfoot, Director at Claremont Communications. Employees are “mission critical,” and as such, they need to feel personally inspired and empowered to make your company’s mission their own.

Today, according to Deloitte, Millennials are “just as interested in how a business develops its people and its contributions to society as they are in its products and profits.” The way a company treats its employees is a strong indicator of organizational culture and its role in advancing purpose across the business.

Cultivating a purpose-led culture starts with giving employees a voice. Ask, and then listen. What motivates them to come to work each day? What gives them a sense of purpose? What is their vision for the future of the company? Make them the role models, pioneers and change-makers – and then show them their impact.

4. Prove your worth

As Hurst notes, purpose can be a data-driven model, and technology can “enable companies to scale their purpose beyond just a marketing or leadership program.”

It’s quickly becoming the norm for companies to measure, analyze and report their impact to the world. But few are reporting that impact to their employees on an individual level.  Employees want to see the ROI of their actions. Showing them how they are personally moving the needle increases fulfillment and spurs continued activation.

However, while more web-based engagement platforms are cropping up, be mindful of the role of technology in people-centric programs. Technology should facilitate conversations and activation without de-personalizing it or putting up a barrier between leaders and employees.

Walmart’s wildly successful My Sustainability Plan platform connected tens of thousands of employees across 9,600 stores in 28 countries – a massive logistical feat. The platform’s simple interface allowed employees to state where they wanted to have an impact, and how – and then showed them their impact. Gamifying the platform spurred individual pride while encouraging communication among people around the world in a personal, authentic way.

5. Address the world in which you operate

Today’s social and political climate adds more instability to the relationship between a company and its people. Aon Hewitt’s 2017 Trends in Employee Engagement report notes that “there are a lot of unknowns in the United States,” leading to uncertainty and volatility.

When pressing social issues such as healthcare, immigration and equality dominate our conversations and turn employees into social activists, it’s hard to check feelings at the office door. Whether or not employees are vocal in the office, company leaders need to be aware and ready to speak to pressing social issues, especially if those issues impact the industries and communities in which your company operates.

Preparing balanced (but still authentic) statements is critical; leaders must be mindful of the differing opinions, backgrounds and experiences their people bring to work each day. Companies need to remain rooted in their values while facilitating productive conversation amongst stakeholders.

Socially conscious companies have reached a tipping point, and Purpose Collaborative members are confident that the aspirations and motivations of employees are being recognized as a vital driving force in business and social impact. How are you driving a new era of employee fulfillment? Let us know on Twitter at @cc_onpurpose.

The Purpose Collaborative is a collective of 37 agencies, including over 400 purpose experts whose mission is to partner with organizations to identify, accelerate, and amplify their purpose, CSR, and sustainability commitments. The Purpose Collaborative is led by Carol Cone, regarded as one of the founders of the purpose movement in the early 1980s.


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