In one of my earlier jobs, I worked in a factory that manufactured shoe uppers for luxury brands. For those of you who are not familiar with the garment industry, for most workers, it’s a dreary job as they only see a few parts of the final merchandise and spend most of their time doing repetitive tasks. In this plant, workers spent most of their time cutting and stitching together small pieces of leather and fabric that would be part of a shoe somewhere, someday. One day, a line supervisor tried something new – she procured a picture of a model wearing the shoe that the line was stitching the upper for and put it up on display. The productivity of the line that week was far higher than that of any other line in the factory.
The Three Levels of Purpose at Work
There are three levels to purpose at work. The first one is that our work enables us to provide for ourselves and our families, which is the reason why the garment workers were working in that factory in the first place. The second level is that our work produces something meaningful and beautiful, and this became clearer to the workers when the finished shoe was pictured on the model. The third level of purpose would be the realisation that our work has a higher goal, maybe the shoe was being made of sustainable material in a plant that cared for the environment as well as its workers health and safety.
When we look at purpose in organisations, all three levels matter. The first fulfills a basic need and is largely in the hands of the individual employee to achieve; the second is in the hands of managers, and the third level is with leaders of the firm as to the impact the firm has in the larger context. It’s when all three levels of purpose are clearly defined, communicated and understood across levels, can organisations aspire to reach their highest level of performance through unity of effort, high degree of satisfaction among employees and sustain this performance over years.
All of us have experienced moments of joy at work where we feel more connected with ourselves, our organisation, and the world around us. This is when all three levels come together to make our work human and relevant. Let’s look at how to drive the three levels of purpose in an organisation.
As we return to work post-pandemic, we should realise that how individuals perceive their work, the work environment, and experience with the organisation has changed. The challenge for any organisation today is to show meaningful first-level purpose to employees by improving employee experience through a combination of actions including better workspaces, redesigned benefits, better technology solutions, balancing work-life for better health, greater autonomy and so on. Many of the in-person office activities are now being enabled in a hybrid mode by digital constructs that are based on data analytics and AI. Hence, organisations need to get serious about repurposing the office for activities that can’t be done remotely. In fact, every aspect of an employee’s touch point with the office needs to be re-visited for the new way of working.
The second level involves aligning individual work to how the organisation wants to deliver solutions to clients. Organisations need to leverage the ability of the individual employee to innovate on the job beyond the defined scope. Employees are often in proximity (zero distance) to the client and if given the right framework can come up with solutions that are innovative and path-breaking for the business. The orientation of employees should be one of “look, learn and improve” and then to share the innovation with the rest of the organisation, so that the process continues in a chain reaction. The focus should be on empathetic ‘problem finding’ and iterative ‘problem solving’ – a great way to show purpose in today’s environment of ambiguity and can truly transform the individual’s role through a second level of purpose.
Thirdly, we need to focus on how the organisation makes a difference – for itself, for its client’s and for the world. By creating sustained outcomes that drive value and fuel growth for customers, while at the same time creating a better society and environment is when the third level of purpose is achieved. It’s an aspirational reason for being, and by doing its business well, the organisation not only generates value for employees and investors, but for the larger good. However, organisations do run into execution challenges as level three is about creating and executing a practical plan that achieves results that can be measured. It’s about tackling the biggest challenges of today – diversity, governance, climate change, sustainability and through collaboration with stakeholders, creating opportunities for the future.
Developing a meaningful purpose at the individual, team and organisation level is the first challenge. More important is authentically communicating that purpose frequently enough and at the right times so that it’s understood across stakeholders. Having a clear and meaningful organisational purpose is essential to being an organisation that people aspire to be a part of.
Purpose doesn’t always have to be about saving the environment, changing the world, or discovering a cure for disease. Purpose could be as simple as creating the most efficient engine or a beautiful shoe that will last many years. But it should be clearly thought through and articulated across all its three levels – why we go to work, how we enjoy what we do at work and how we together do something useful for the larger world.
The Japanese have a word for life purpose – ikigai, which literally means ‘a reason for being.’ It can also be described as ‘the reason I get up in the morning.’ Its explanation is that if you find yourself in the sweet spot where the three levels of purpose intersect, then you’re more likely to find yourself springing out of bed in the morning, full of joy.
(The author is Executive Vice President, Head HR, Infosys. Views expressed are personal.)