5 Ways to Craft a Workplace Culture with Purpose

By David Shanklin, Head of Culture Strategy, CultureIQ


Purpose in the workplace matters today more than ever. Millennials, who now comprise the largest sector of the workforce, identify a sense of purpose as one of the primary reasons for accepting employment. It turns out, other generations want similar things as those often attributed to Millennials: to make a positive impact, help solve social challenges and to work with a diverse group of people.


With half of all U.S. salaried employees working more than 50 hours per week, identity is inextricably entwined with time spent at work. People considering salaried jobs are increasingly weighing more autonomous and flexible options, such as contract- and part-time work. That talented web designer could easily work as a consultant and the office financial wizard could opt to freelance if the company doesn’t offer a compelling reason to stay.


Imbuing the workplace with a sense of purpose translates into a competitive advantage for hiring, engagement and retention. It is important to pay attention to Millennials because they are the masthead for a new type of culture that workers are starting to demand across the board. The workforce’s youngest generation’s desire for an intentional culture and greater societal contribution presents an opportunity to improve a company’s ‘soul’its purpose—for the benefit of all.


How to Cultivate Purpose in Any Job


Historically speaking, purpose has come across as a rather opaque topic. For those born in earlier years, salaried white-collar work was often seen as a nine-to-five, do-your-job-and-go-home proposition. Purpose was either naturally exuded by community-oriented institutions such as charities, nonprofits and schools, or it was the domain of business standouts like Google, Disney or Zappos.


More recently, companies have come to realize that clear purpose should be a pillar of business regardless of industry or job type. As something that requires constant cultivation and nurturing, a culture with clear purpose cannot be created or sustained in a vacuum. Instead, it should evidence itself by influencing daily decisions and actions from employees and leaders alike. When a purpose-centered focus is in place, a positive and engaged company culture can naturally emerge.


Here’s how to craft a workplace culture that emphasizes purpose:


1. Start With Leadership Mindset

To create a culture that fosters purpose, a strong and inspiring leadership mindset is key. Leaders’ attitudes foster the default modus operandi of a company’s culture and disseminate a way of being throughout a company’s organization. At the top, does the CEO believe that employees show up everyday to do what is best for the company? Are the company policies designed in a way that reflects this line of thinking? Or do managers believe that employees are constantly looking for ways to shirk off responsibilities?


If a workplace is informed by policies meant to control and micro-manage employees, trust is undermined. Dan Pink, leading business thinker and author, cites autonomy as one of the main motivators for employees, and behind autonomy is a foundation of trust. To create and sustain  trust, encourage leaders to frequently ask themselves if they are succumbing to blame bias. Are they operating with a growth mindset? And what is their management style? Self reflection and awareness can encourage a flexibility that crafts a nimble culture.


2. Crowdsource Purpose

Identifying and enabling purpose to inspire employees begins with addressing the needs your company meets in the world—essentially your organization’s ‘why.’ Survey employees about how they locate purpose in their own work and leverage customer feedback to understand how the organization makes a difference in their lives. This can lead to a practice that encourages open conversations and feedback loops that allow your company to crowdsource purpose from its most major participants, its employees.


The common threads between employee and customer purpose, once teased out, can be incorporated into the broader organizationincluding vision and mission statements. Articulating ‘why’ your company leaders and employees do what they do can tether a caring, compassionate and aware culture to your company’s stated impact on the world, which in turn strengthens and refines a sense of purpose.  


3. Craft Intentional Culture

When it comes to creating intentional culture, the ‘what’ or strategy part of your organization can be articulated by asking questions such as ‘what do we do that enables our company to achieve purpose?’


Understanding your culture can be as simple as reframing that same question to inquire about ‘how’. For example, ‘how do we behave and operate in order to accomplish our strategy?’ Your culture should include and define specific behaviors expected of its employees. To do this, start by having a conversation with your leadership team about what qualities, skills, attitudes and behaviors your ideal employees exemplify. Talk about specific employees, not a theoretical “ideal employee”. Extrapolate these characteristics out in the form of values and define expected behaviors.


4. Align People and Process
Procedures, processes and policies should align with the culture of your company. From hiring to performance management, processes are often created at different stages of a company and may reflect divergent priorities. Remove unnecessary bureaucratic steps and modify any materials that dissuade employee autonomy or cause the team to bristle.


Once your ideal culture has been defined, you can align internal processes to target desired behaviors. For inspiration on how to do this, read the recent Wall Street Journal Article on Union Square Hospitality Group, which took the radical step of eliminating tips to strengthen equality in the workplace, an example of framing policies to support a desired behavior.


Recognition programs are a another great way to move strategic objectives forward by promoting desired behaviors while encouraging loyalty and boosting morale. Take a look at decision rights and approval processes—two areas that showcase employee autonomy and the ability to navigate policies. Oftentimes this is where the mindset of leaders comes into play most, overseeing hierarchical processes because employees aren’t fully trusted to make the best call for the company.


In reality, pushing decision rights closer to the frontline will enable the person who knows the most about the problem to decide on the solution. It will also make your organization more agile and responsive. By rewarding the behavior that aligns with the workplace culture you want, you can nurture and cultivate the environment you wish to sustain.

5. Track and Measure

Lastly, employing technology that enables your company to track and measure how you are doing is integral for maintaining and fine-tuning a purposeful culture. Rarely are people inspired by a misaligned organization—the mixed messages lead to confusion, frustration and apathy. And simply tracking engagement is not enough, you must also be able to measure the presence of specific cultural behaviors and how aligned processes and programs (like performance management and recognition) are with the stated culture. Citing specific metrics that correspond with key performance indicators can instill a program that constantly observes and betters itself.


Today, people analytics platforms offer a tech-savvy solution that can bring about changes in operational and strategic culture to allow an organization to glean insight, set a course of action and continuously monitor how day-to-day behaviors lineup with long-term goals. By identifying and analyzing culture through continually measuring and tracking key metrics, an organization can close gaps and bring about meaningful change instead of just looking at an engagement score once a year and hoping for the best.


Bettering Your Business

Instilling purpose to meet the changing desires of all generations of workers will not only attract a more loyal workforce, but serve everyoneincluding your business as a whole. Millennials might be the ones shedding light on purpose, but as the economy continues to evolve, culture will take an ever more prominent role. Put the right foundation and practices in place, and your culture will grow and evolve with the needs of every subsequent wave of workers.

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