Workforce Engagement: The Challenges of Implementing Purpose

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TPC Leadership are delving into the topic of workforce engagement. This mini blog series with TPC Leadership Associate Joe Aston explores why purpose needs to be prioritized by organizations, how it can be used as a tool to enable workforce alignment, and ultimately, how it can tap into the hidden capacity and energy of the organization and its leaders.

Having previously discussed the value of defining purpose in the context of vision, values and ‘BHAGs’ in blog 1 , in this blog (2 of 3),  Joe delves into why ‘purpose’ is so important for organizations to pay attention to now, and the challenges they may face.

There’s growing evidence that purpose is becoming more important to stakeholders inside and outside organizations. Among investors, we see a growing appetite for social responsibility and social purpose to be real and tangible within organizations. This means change in an organization’s governance and how it’s managed. 

A study by Morgan Stanley of 120 institutional investors concluded that 70% integrated sustainable investment criteria in their decision-making, and 14% were actively considering it. Investors know that organizations that incorporate environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) tend to perform better long term. 

Moreover, TPC Leadership has seen how making an organization’s purpose ‘real’ for its workforce can boost engagement and performance, as well as help attract and retain talent. A recent survey by Deloitte in 2021 showed that 44% of Millenials and 49% of Generation Z said they had made choices about the type of work they were prepared to do and what organizations they were willing to work for based on their personal ethics.

Making a purpose ‘real’ for the workforce requires engaging all levels in the process of rediscovering and redefining purpose so people can make meaningful and tangible connections to their own teams and work. This means supporting definition of purpose and commitment to it – as part of vision – to the level of each team. When defined and ‘connected up’ at all levels in this way, purpose and values can define boundaries – empowering workforces to take initiative and innovate with agility in an aligned and mutually accountable way. In contrast to top-down planning and control, this approach to alignment and accountability nurtures intrinsic motivation.

Purpose is vital but challenging to get right

Outlined below are four key reasons why some organizations find it difficult to make a purpose ‘real’, and to engage and connect their employees with it. 

1. There is often tension between purpose and investor pressure

Joe sees an example of this challenge in the energy sector, where despite espoused purpose and ambitions to support the ‘energy transition’, the major oil and gas companies are investing just 5% of their capital expenditure worldwide in ‘clean energy’ according to the IEA. Investors are increasingly interested in how organizations are fulfilling their defined purpose, investing for long-term success, and managing stakeholder impacts, according to research from the Financial Reporting Council. Despite this, energy executives’ concern is often that if they reallocate capital too quickly to alternative forms of energy, this will impact near-term shareholder returns and confidence so much that they will have reduced access to capital, and therefore lose their ability to be powerful enablers for transformation.

2. Significant effort and ownership is required to make purpose real

It takes significant energy from leaders to maintain balance between sustainably running the organization, and ensuring cash flow for today, while also investing in transforming the organization so it can increasingly fulfil its purpose tomorrow. Making a purpose ‘real’ usually requires leaders to prioritise delivery of change and adopting new leadership behaviours, both of which require personal sacrifice. The kind of prioritisation needed to ensure delivery of ambitions that make a purpose ‘real’ often means turning down lucrative short-term opportunities that don’t align. Delivering these ambitions also often requires leaders to share or give more power and status to others to effectively mobilize change across organizational boundaries. 

3. Fundamental change may be required 

Making a purpose real requires leaders to acknowledge and address the reality that some elements of their organization’s strategy, investments, or organizational leadership will not align with the values or purpose. For example, in professional services, leaders are often promoted to partner level on the basis of sales performance; this can undermine making purpose ‘real’ where these leaders don’t meaningfully embody or support the values and purpose. 

All leaders will benefit from support in leading change and some leaders may need to transition to a role better aligned with their strengths and capability. This may mean top performers being recognised with pay instead of formal leadership responsibility. Some leaders may even need to be supported in transitioning out of the organization where values do not align. 

4. It requires skills that many leaders need to grow in: they need some support and help. 

Joe notes from our experience at TPCL that many leaders lack the awareness and skills required to effectively facilitate the workforce and stakeholder dialogue needed to make the purpose real. Skilfully facilitated conversations are needed to engage the workforce to personally connect with the values, to feel empowered in delivering the ambitions, and to surface barriers to change so they can be addressed. Skilful leadership is required to create space for autonomy, innovation and creativity in the service of the purpose and supporting ambitions while holding people to account for their responsibilities and where work or behaviours do not align. 

Making a purpose real will always involve change, and will always require leaders to grow. 

If you’d like to hear more about how TPC Leadership can support your organization to successfully and sustainably engage its workforce and stakeholders with purpose, please get in touch. Or sign up to our mailing list to stay up to date with our news.

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