Much has been written lately about Millennials’ and (especially) Generation Z’s desire to work for purpose-driven companies. It may very well become one of the defining narratives around how the workplace will evolve, especially as the war for talent continues.
“Working with purpose” requires a lot more than an inspiring company mission; it’s something every leader must actively foster in their team. Here I’ll present a framework that breaks out the details plus talk about how the Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) goal framework is a uniquely powerful way for companies to work with purpose.
Hierarchy of Working with Purpose
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Daniel Pink’s Motivation 3.0 principles tell us a lot about what motivates us in the workplace. Our Hierarchy of Working with Purpose borrows from that broader body of psychology research and is a pragmatic guide for leaders to unlock the potential of their teams:
Like Maslow’s hierarchy, we start at the bottom of the pyramid and can only “un-lock” the next level by satisfying the preceding one.
⛏ Prioritized, Intentional Work I know what to work on and I’m working on the most important things.
If a leader doesn’t regularly communicate priorities and make clear what’s most important, their team won’t know why they’re performing one task vs. another. Conversely, an environment where clear priorities inform decision-making is the foundation for purposeful work.
💯 Autonomy and Ownership I feel ownership of my work and have autonomy to achieve it.
Letting your team own outcomes and affording them creativity for how to achieve them builds a positive culture of ownership and accountability. When we have autonomy and feel ownership of our work, we naturally look to imbue it with meaning.
🤜 🤛 Connectedness / Alignment I know how how my work is connected to the greater whole.
Evan at moderately sized organizations, it’s easy for the work of an individual or team to feel isolated. It’s essential for leaders to help connect the dots between what the CEO says are the top priorities and what their team is trying to accomplish everyday. There’s also an opportunity to seek out disparate teams working on similar problems, which additionally adds to the sense of collectively working towards common purpose.
🙏 Higher Calling I’m inspired by my company’s mission and make it my own.
At the top of the hierarchy lies the opportunity for employees to be fully engaged in a purpose-driven company. One of leader’s key responsibilities is to formalize the mission, typically expressed as a statement or single paragraph and often complimented by a vision and written long-term strategy.
Getting the mission and other pieces formally in place is fundamental. But to make the mission more impactful than something just written in the employee handbook, there needs to be regular, tangible progress towards it (e.g., context for connecting work to impact). One of the best tools a leader has to accomplish that is by setting medium and long-term aspirational goals. When the team not only believes in the mission, but sees the company making incremental progress towards it, they’ll want to keep pushing even harder.
Putting It All Together
Even “routine” work can take on meaning and purpose when I understand its importance, I feel ownership of it, I know how it fits into the bigger picture for the company, and I see that we’re steadily moving forward on our mission.
The Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) framework can be a superpower for creating an environment where employees are able to work with purpose. Companies like Intel, LinkedIn and Airbnb have achieved amazing results with OKRs, but less often discussed is the fact that deploying a goal framework in the right way can create a vastly better working environment (note that much of this also applies to other great goal setting frameworks like V2MOM).
Let’s use the Hierarchy of Purposeful Work to see how.
⛏ Prioritized, Intentional Work
Writing down clear objectives forces a conversation about your team’s and company’s top priorities. With objectives in hand, it becomes much easier for anyone on the team to say whether a task is important or not.
💯 Autonomy and Ownership
Most of us in business are used to the two-step process of 1) Figuring out where we’re trying to get to (e.g. the objective), then 2) creating a plan about how to get there. The OKR framework proposes something radically different; that instead of immediately jumping into planning, you first figure out how to measure (via key results) whether you’ve actually achieved the objective. By letting individuals and teams own outcomes via OKRs instead of managing them through a task list, you provide autonomy and ownership of the work.
🤜 🤛 Connectedness / Alignment
A central tenant of the OKR framework is that goals are transparent to the whole organization and that alignment happens via a bottom-up process (instead of rigid top-down planning). That makes it possible and relatively simple for everyone in a company to see how their work relates to the bigger picture, while simultaneously embracing the real-world chaos that exists in any growing organization.
🙏 Higher Calling
As mentioned above, one of the best ways a leader can demonstrate progress towards the mission is via aspiration goals, a perfect fit for company-wide OKRs.
Good objectives are inspiring, time-bound, and challenging. They also get to the root of the problem you’re trying to solve.
Take the following example:
An objective: Improve application performance
A better objective:Solve customer frustration around slow page loading times
Use the Hierarchy of Purposeful Work to think about ways to improve the working environment for your team. If your company isn’t already using OKRs or a similar goal framework, maybe now is the time to dig in and get started? More purposeful work lies ahead!