Three Questions

By Sheila L. Margolis Jul 7, 2011

Employees typically focus on daily tasks without an understanding of the big picture—the core principles and goals that should unite and guide everyone. When employees have a passion for the “why,” live by the “how” and focus on accomplishing the “what” of the organization, then they see the big picture. Employees don’t need to be micromanaged. Motivated by “why,” guided by “how” and targeted to achieve “what,” they can evaluate their daily activities to determine what they should be doing and how they should be doing it.

The Why

The “why” of an organization defines its purpose.Businesses exist to make a profit, but they also exist to make a difference or to provide a service or product that meets a need. Through work, individuals can make a difference and be part of a meaningful legacy.

Ask yourself and your employees, “Why does the organization exist? Why is the work important?” After asking the second question several times, you will uncover the collective contribution of the organization—its purpose.

Employees must understand how their daily activities help to achieve the purpose. Once you and your employees have identified the “why,” communicate the purpose and live by it. Do the people who work for you genuinely care about the cause? Are their daily activities contributing to that purpose?

Doing meaningful work leads to a prosperous life for the individual and the organization.

The How

The “how” is the collection of values that inspire and guide behavior—the organization’s guiding principles. The three layers of principles are the organization’s distinctive, strategic and engaging values. Consider what makes your organization distinct from other organizations doing similar work. Strategic values guide how employees must behave to achieve the organization’s vision and goals. Engaging values are the universal themes that contribute to building a culture of highly engaged and motivated employees. Universal priorities consist of the following six values:

Fit. Am I a fit with the organization and its culture? Is the purpose of the organization meaningful to me? Are the values of the company in harmony with my values? Am I a fit with my job? Is my work significant, challenging and the best use of my abilities?

Trust. Do I have a trusting workplace where leaders have integrity and are honest, respected and fair?

Caring. Do I have a caring workplace where my peers and managers feel like family, and do they encourage collaboration and teamwork? Do I have friends at work?

Openness. Am I informed, and does my manager listen?

Development. Does the company support individual development? Am I developing and growing in ways that nurture achievement and mastery?

Ownership. Do I feel like an owner? Do I have autonomy where I participate in decision-making, have responsibilities and have flexibility in how I achieve my goals?

Ask employees to rate themselves on these six priorities and discuss with them how you can help improve areas of weakness.

The What

The final ingredient of the big picture is the “what” of the organization—its vision and goals. Employees must align their actions with the vision and goals. A clear picture of the vision and goals establishes desired results. Employees must understand what actions will support the health of the organization.

The “what” provides quantifiable measures to gauge results. Employees must be able to make smart choices in how they spend their time. With a clear vision and goals—the “what”—expressed in ways that are descriptive and quantifiable, employees can construct individual objectives and gauge how well they are making a difference through their work.

Sheila L. Margolis is president of Workplace Culture Institute, a change management consulting firm in Atlanta,


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect