Three Things All Employees Need

And What it Means for the Future of Work

By: Jennifer Ayres 

In my earlier blog post, Surviving & Thriving in Change Things coronavirus teaches us about navigating uncertainty, I start by pointing out an obvious truth that these days, the one certainty we have is change. As we continue to navigate the many unknowns of this current pandemic, the idea of inevitable and far-reaching change leaves some of us feeling acutely unsettled. Yet for others, it brings hope that potentially things will improve. 

While organizations try to grasp at possible outcomes whether from an economic outlook, or by discerning the duration of the disruption, or by gauging indicators of consumer spend; I believe there are at least three characteristics leaders should foster in their organizations if they want resilient teams that can not only survive but thrive in change. Those three keys are: Purpose, Empowerment, and Empathy.

  1. Purpose (and Meaning)
  2. Empowerment
  3. Empathy

The Need for Purpose (and Meaning)

My personal experience, working over 20 years with executives and their teams at Fortune 500 companies, is that most employees lack a sense of purpose. Often organizations focus on a role, task, or job, but rarely is it known to the individual how their contribution impacts the organization. 

Jacob Morgan, a Futurist known for his observations on ‘The Future of Work’ writes about the need for people to have both purpose and meaning in his book The Future Leader. He writes,

“Purpose and meaning are unique human things that we all desire, crave, and need… Employees are saying that they want to be part of an organization where they understand their purpose and can find meaning.”

Companies can help their employees connect the individual’s purpose and meaning to the mission and vision of the company by creating a purpose statement that either points to or reinforces a larger aspirational vision or goal. This is not simply an economic statement. It helps those involved with an organization understand how they are making a difference and gives them a sense of meaning. For example, at one of my clients, Johnson & Johnson, employees know the work they do is in the service of patients, reflected in the first line of their Credo:

“We believe our first responsibility is to the patients, doctors and nurses, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.”

With this Credo in place, Johnson & Johnson unites their people with a shared set of values that ground and guide the decision making for a global workforce of 120,000+. This also creates a greater sense of unity when crisis requires teams to pivot and work together on new solutions. 

This can also be accomplished even when finding purpose seems difficult. While leading a large post-merger integration, there were new business processes that needed to be examined and revised along with a consolidation of technologies used to run the business. Integration programs like this can be exhausting for employees and finding common purpose that everyone can get behind can be a challenge. 

We selected representatives from the organization and asked for feedback on what motivated them and their people. We ended up creating a program mission statement that aligned to the larger corporate mission that was about getting critical surgical devices to doctors who were saving lives. 

In order to do that, everyone had to know where they fit into the new processes so that the device was built with quality parts, was clearly identifiable by the surgeon, and that the right device was delivered to the right location at the right time. Sounds simple, but enough could go wrong in this process that could create a disaster for doctors, and worse, the patient! To get it right, everyone needed to be aligned on the purpose of their efforts!

The Need for Empowerment

At a time when many of us can feel powerless, there are countless stories of people still determined to take action despite the challenges. According to employee engagement expert, Jason Magidson, in his book Engaged:

“It is human nature to want to make a difference, to learn and continually improve, and make a difference for others. This intrinsic motivation is hard wired. The best organizations know how to tap into and actualize this motivation.”

I believe there are three ways to empower employees by tapping into this intrinsic motivation.

The first is to create an environment that encourages people to act for the greater good of their community. Community here is defined by those stakeholders who interact with the organization: employees, customers, partners, etc. When people feel connected to their community, they will often take steps to protect and preserve it. When you empower people, you can not only motivate them but inspire them to act. Robb Holman says in his book Lead the Way: Inside Out Leadership, “Do you want to babysit people or empower people?”. Especially during times of chaos, turbulence, uncertainty, you need employees of action.

The second is to remove obstacles for employees in making decisions. When people feel they have a role in shaping their work or the solution, they feel a sense of ownership and commitment to the desired collective outcome. For example, When American Airlines wanted to address customer concerns more rapidly, they empowered their airline staff to address issues in real-time by awarding passengers points on the spot. Southwest Airlines, voted top 10 Best Places to Work by Forbes in 2019, enlisted their employees to redesign their own uniforms. Additionally, their team leaders are given budgets to show their employees they care, spending money on things such as flowers after a death, or Southwest-branded baby items to employees’ newborns.

The third is to practice conscious leadership. In the book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, organizations that follow a conscious leadership model are winning the war for talent and they are transforming average workers into outstanding contributors creating impressive results. During times of uncertainty, it is easy for us to show behavior rooted in fear. Typically, that shows up in being defensive, closed, blaming or shaming others. Conscious leadership invites us to commit to being curious vs. being right. The authors point out that in their studies, most suboptimal team results involve people arguing in an attempt to be right which can sabotage creative potential. Especially in times of crisis, being curious and engaging others with a possible solution, can inform a way forward that might have been otherwise overlooked.

The Need for Empathy

Another benefit to being curious is that it can foster empathy. When Kenneth Chenault, former Chairman and CEO of American Express, was asked during his time there what leadership skills are required in crisis situations he said the following:

“What is most important is to show compassion and listen very actively while continuing to be a strong and decisive leader. During a crisis, people want direction, but they also need to know that you empathize with them…The trust factor is absolutely essential. People can see right through insincerity, and in times of crisis, if you do not engender a level of trust and empathy, there is no way that you can lead your organization through adversity.” [Leaders talk Leadership]

Employees do not feel a sense of commitment to help the organization if that same organization has not shown a sense of commitment to their well-being. Recently, Glassdoor published its 2020 Best Places to Work – Employee’s Choice and not surprisingly some of the common themes surrounding the companies that landed on the list related to empathy for employee needs, e.g. flexible work arrangements, career progression support and learning, unlimited paid-time-off, coaching and mentorship, great healthcare, and 401K savings programs, to name a few. These companies responded to the needs of their particular workforce and it’s returning the investment tenfold! 

Investing In The Future Of Work Starts Now

These three characteristics – purpose, empowerment, and empathy – are what employees of top companies will come to expect. And since Korn Ferry’s predicted global human talent shortage of more than 85 million people by 2030, companies can’t afford not to address these topics for their people. While our business environment will continue to change, these will remain steadfast needs that define who not only survives, but thrives.