Frontline Managers are Begging for Purpose — McKinsey Asks, Can They Find It at Your Company?”

By: Kelsey Schurer, Director of Stories and Learning in Purpose

Whether a curse or a blessing, most Americans tie their sense of purpose to the work they do. And if their job isn’t fulfilling that purpose, they often feel adrift, vacant, and questioning. The effects of the pandemic, especially, have left people examining their purpose in life and if their job is in alignment with what they stand for.

According to McKinsey research, nearly two-thirds of US employees said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. And while 70 percent of employees said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work, nearly half said they were reconsidering the kind of work they do because of a lack of alignment between their purpose and the company they work for.

People are hungry to connect their purpose to the work they do day-in and day-out. McKinsey reports that when employees feel their purpose is aligned to the company’s purpose, the benefits are numerous, including stronger engagement, increased loyalty and retention, and a willingness to recommend the company to others. Additionally, the research indicates that a company which spends time reflecting on its purpose—and the impact it makes in the world—benefits from employees who are five times more likely to be excited to work for them.

If you’re the leader of a company whose purpose is articulated well and referenced consistently across your entire ecosystem, you may naturally attract employees who are aligned to your purpose. However this does not always mean those employees can articulate the unique contribution they each make to the work you do together as an organization, and therein lies a significant opportunity to more deeply highlight their connection to the company. Conversely, if you’re a leader who feels you are attracting too many misaligned employees—and enduring the high expense of turnover as a result—this may indicate misalignment, and/or it may also indicate that you simply cannot see the alignment. Leaders in either of these situations would benefit from playing an active role in supporting their employees to connect the dots between personal purpose and the company’s purpose and therefore gain valuable insight into their employees’ unique contributions.

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Understanding the purpose gap

Not all levels within an organization experience purpose at work equally. McKinsey reports there is a purpose hierarchy gap between leadership living out their purpose at work and frontline managers and employees. This hierarchy gap somberly lives up to its name, with the numbers to back it up:

  • While an impressive 85 percent of upper management agree they are living out their purpose at work, an equally staggering 85 percent of frontline managers and employees disagree or are unsure that they can live their purpose in their day-to-day work.

  • Executives are eight times more likely to say their purpose is fulfilled by work than other employees.

  • And 62 percent of employees say they get some purpose from work, but they are wanting even more.

Employees who report less purpose also report reduced energy, lower engagement, lower satisfaction with the company, and lower excitement about work, which in turn increases turnover and lessens retention, productivity, and performance.

Purpose development

The burden of purpose development cannot rest on the shoulders of employees who have considerably less access to personal and professional development. It is leadership who has the skills and training to articulate purpose and connect personal purpose to company purpose. Therefore, it is leadership’s responsibility to make sure that frontline employees connect the dots between what they stand for in the world and what they do day-to-day on behalf of the company.

Leadership who resist this reality would be wise to review the data on frontline managers and employees who are:

  • 10 times less likely than management-level colleagues to say that they’d had opportunities to reflect on their purpose

  • stand only a 7 percent chance of fulfilling their purpose at work if their managers don’t provide them opportunities to reflect on purpose

  • 9 times less likely to say that they’d had a manager foster opportunities for them to work on purposeful projects

  • 3 times less likely to say that they can see a connection between their daily work and the organization’s purpose

  • asking their employer to provide more opportunities for purpose in their day-to-day work (63 percent)

If leadership wants the benefits of a purposeful workforce, then leadership needs to provide the guidance to bridge the gap.

Taking action on purpose

For company purpose to holistically thrive and connect from top leadership all the way down to the front lines, leaders need to take strategic action to support that connection.

1. Self-reflect and evaluate alignment between company purpose and values and employees. The first thing leadership can do to emphasize purpose in the workplace is reassess their company purpose and gain visibility into how that purpose is perceived at the front lines. Ask yourself: is the language we use to define our company purpose explicitly setting expectations of the behaviors I try hardest to exhibit and am asking our employees to adopt? Do I and other influential leaders at our company walk the walk as well as we talk the talk? Or do we exhibit our values when it is convenient to do so, but cast them aside when the heat gets turned up? Do employees see leadership as living our values and in what cases do they see us not behaving in alignment with our word? A sobering find from McKinsey reports that nearly half (44 percent) of respondents said that their company’s “purpose isn’t activated—meaning, for example, that leaders’ decisions seem inconsistent with the company’s purpose or that the company otherwise isn’t living up to its words.” This perceived misalignment is the norm for nearly half of all American workers.

2. Express vulnerability with your employees when it comes to continued improvement on aligning purpose. McKinsey challenges CEOs and top leadership not to assume that your company’s purpose is good enough, goes far enough, or that your colleagues and employees even see eye to eye about it. Get brave and vulnerable enough to participate in tough conversations and learn where you and others stand.

3. Prioritize inclusivity with employee self-development. Give your frontline managers self-development opportunities to increase their awareness of their own purpose as it relates to the company’s purpose, goals, values, and mission. Seeing the alignment between their own beliefs and the company’s purpose and values can strengthen trust and confidence in your entire workforce

. . .

Embarking on a purpose initiative requires consistent effort, and yet the outcomes far outweigh the risks. When employees’ purposes are in alignment with organizational purpose, both frontline managers and frontline employees agree that the company is positively impacting 96 percent of customers, 95 percent of their fellow employees, 95 percent of the organization as a whole, and 91 percent of society today.

As a top-level executive, the responsibility to help make your organization and its people more purposeful is yours to own; if for no other reason than the direct impact on the bottom line. This initiative begins by creating an environment where purpose is sung in conversation, refined through thoughtful feedback, and embraced in day-to-day interactions.