Unleash 2019: How purpose creates a sense of belonging

Image: Unleash

Giving employees a compelling purpose is nothing new, but it might help create a sense of belonging in a world where staff are constantly looking for their next move, according to a business academic.

At last week’s Unleash Conference & Expo in London, Costas Markides, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School, estimated that around half of the UK working population works remotely.

The requirement is not to make our companies good anymore, or excellent. The requirement is how to make our organisations special and make our people feel special there.” – Costas Markides

Meanwhile, unlike the generations before them, people no longer expect to stay in the same job or organisation for the majority of their working lives – high school graduates in the US expect to have had around 10-40 jobs by the time they reach 40 years old, according to the US Department of Labor.

To unite such a polarised workforce, Markides said organisations need to make sure they have a clear purpose that staff at all levels are inspired by. However, he claimed that “99.9% of purposes out there are totally useless”.

“Most people think that coming up with a sexy-sounding slogan is the key – it’s not,” he said.

“What makes it compelling is not the characteristics of the purpose, it’s the time and energy put into selling it to your people to win their hearts. It’s only when people buy into the purpose that the purpose becomes compelling.

“It’s a process. It takes time, it takes a lot of effort, and it takes a lot of strategy to put it into effect.”

Once they have decided on their overall mission, employers need to sell it to staff using a variety of tactics. Markides explained that story-telling and visualisation can often prompt an emotive response, inspiring employees to push the boundaries of what they can achieve.

Leaders should also champion the organisations’ purpose in their own day-to-day behaviours, setting an example for their staff to follow.

Making staff feel special

Perhaps surprisingly, Markides said making staff feel “special” and unique is key to creating a sense of belonging.

He said organisations should celebrate employees’ important moments and milestones – such as engagements, marriage and starting a family – with others, as well as building a special, perhaps even “fun”, working environment for them.

He gave the example of US online shoe retailer Zappos, where employees are encouraged to have fun while they are working, be adventurous and create “a little weirdness”.

He said: “What unites people is that they belong to a tribe that is different, that makes them feel special.

“The requirement is not to make our companies good anymore, or excellent. The requirement is how to make our organisations special and make our people feel special there.

“Take every opportunity to bring people together through shared activities. It doesn’t matter what the activity is, it could be company conferences, common events, common celebrations. Doing things together reinforces that we belong together.”

Making people feel special also extends to investment in workers’ professional growth. He gave the example of learning and development, which he suggested businesses are sometimes hesitant to pay for as they fear it will give staff the skills needed to take job elsewhere.

“But the more you invest in them, to make them more appealing to other people, the less inclined they will be to move,” he said.

Creating a sense of belonging is difficult to achieve in today’s world, but Markides said it is not unattainable if time and effort is invested in doing so.

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