The pandemic has intensified a growing challenge for companies. More and more employees are looking to express themselves and connect their personal values to their careers, and thereby gain a sense of purpose. Yet most companies do very little to articulate their values in a way that people can connect to. Statements of mission and purpose, while a starting point, are usually too vague or broad to inspire a strong connection.
Without articulating those values—and specific behaviors that stem from them—companies will struggle to retain their talent. They'll lose those people to opportunities in entrepreneurship, a different organization or elsewhere.
The solution is for leaders to clarify their company's purpose and values and, even more important, become accountable for them—top down, bottom up and inside out. They can then meet employees in the middle, by clearly articulating what the company stands for beyond making money; moving the company as needed to where employees are going now; and helping them connect their personal values with the company's.
Understanding People Beyond the Paycheck
In the past, many leaders took a utilitarian approach to their employees. People were costs to be minimized, so they paid what it took to get them on board, provided generous benefits at times, but meanwhile outsourced all the jobs possible. The real action was in the executive ranks, after all, so why do more than the minimum with everyone else?
The problem is that people want more than money and individual gratification. Even Abraham Maslow, who developed the pyramid of human needs, eventually realized that he erred in putting self-actualization at the top. He added transcendence, which involves connecting to other human beings, to nature and to the cosmos, as ends rather than means.
Back in 2010, with the late Tony Hsieh, I co-founded a consulting firm called Delivering Happiness. My colleagues and I have since worked with hundreds of companies around the world to boost their employees' well-being. We've learned that the priority for many people is not happiness, at least as conventionally understood, but wholeness and self-awareness. This comes from processing our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual self—in our highs and lows.
As writer Shawn Achor has pointed out, "Happiness is not an individual sport inside our organizations. Instead we need an interconnected approach to happiness and success."
Connecting Values and Behaviors
Many if not most companies are already closer to their employees' values than might appear. But senior executives must clarify and recommit to the company's overall values and behaviors. Often the company hasn't been living up to these as well as it should. The leaders need a reminder of and re-engagement in what matters most for the company. And now we have an opportunity to create a strong foundation as organizations reboot post-pandemic.
Next, the company needs to connect those values with its workforce. With our clients we often run an exercise to do exactly that. We divide the employees into small groups and ask the people in each group to write out on stickie notes their most important personal values. Meanwhile we write out the company's main values on a large canvas. We then ask each person to step forward to post a note and draw a line to the company value it connects, perhaps with a few words explaining the similarity.
In the vast majority of cases, and sometimes with help from the rest of the group, people find a connection with the company's values. Usually they didn't realize it before and doing so helps them better engage with the organization and support its efforts. If, even with the help of colleagues, they can't find a connection, that's a sign of misalignment. This is when coaching helps, even if that eventually means the employee should start looking elsewhere. With transparent communication along the way, the process yields a mutually beneficial social contract, where the decision to part ways or continue becomes clear.
The company can support those connections with three levers from psychological research into happiness. Employees need a sense of control over their work lives (through autonomy, agency and trust); a sense of progress (by replacing distant, big goals with proximate milestones to celebrate); and close relationships with colleagues (fostered, for example, by leaders who start meetings with quick personal check-ins and end them with gratitude). Organizations with those three elements in their culture will find it much easier to engage employees on purpose.
The Student Loan Marketing Corporation, better known as Sallie Mae, went through this process as part of transforming its culture in 2017. After the company's leaders revisited their values, we tested them out with small groups of people before whiteboards. One employee wrote down their personal value of 'love,' and mapped it to the company's value of 'connect.' Another connected 'freedom' to 'dare to do.' A third chose 'harmony' and drew a line to 'thrive.' The leaders also committed to promoting employee control, progress and relationships.
By identifying what mattered to them personally, and seeing the similarities to the company's values, Sallie Mae's employees could better support what the company was doing. They could be true to their authentic selves while connecting to their organization's higher purpose. The values sessions also helped with relationships. It's one thing to know what television shows your colleagues watch or how they spend their weekends. You have a deeper connection when you know their personal values.
Freeing Up Change Agents
In some companies, however, the mismatch between employee values and actual operations is so great that executives need to move aggressively before reconnecting their workforce. A related pressure arises in brands that are especially examined for how they treat their employees, and one that comes to mind is Starbucks. With the pandemic lockdowns and protests over racism, its leaders stepped back in spring 2020 to take stock of what it stood for. They wanted to re-center on the company's founding mission and social impact, especially after the (second) retirement of founder Howard Schultz in 2018.
The result was a series of bold steps to back up their claim to be a "people positive" company. Despite the pandemic, they kept paying all employees whether or not they came into work. They also added bonuses and mentorship programs to strengthen their diversity and inclusion efforts.
Beyond the workforce, they doubled their investment in the Global Farmer Fund to channel more capital to small coffee farms. And they created a new role of Chief Social Impact Officer—not only to drive those decisions home, but also to better listen to all of the giant company's stakeholders for a more people- (and planet-) positive company.
Before 2020, social impact had been just another department in a giant organization. The company was doing good things here and there, but not using its heft to scale up its global impact and effectively communicate to consumers what it means to drink a cup of their coffee. Now social impact and the company's mission consistently factored directly into C-suite decisions.
This happened not only because the leadership made a firm commitment and laid out the changes. They also empowered teams across the organization. One of those teams was led by Danny Brooks and Annie Richmond. Brooks was a former Michelin-star chef and IDEO consultant. Richmond was a manager in corporate strategy.
Brooks and Richmond embraced the leadership's intentions and developed a process for codifying their brand strategy in the company's initiatives. They took their own personal values—centered on people—and made them work for the giant organization by operationalizing their efforts. The leadership recognized their impact and ultimately approved most of what they developed, because of how they mindfully worked with the rest of the organization.
Those measures in turn resonated with the rest of the company, around the world. By working with evolved senior leaders, testing new ways to collaborate with colleagues and harnessing the power of purposeful people, the company boosted engagement and market value during a difficult transition.
Starbucks may be a bit unusual in its boldness, but the approach is likely to work at other companies disconnected from what their employees care about. If you take the time to codify your organizational purpose, values and behaviors, and then meaningfully align them with your employees, you'll create a company that truly connects—and retains—all stakeholders.
Jenn Lim is co-founder of the Delivering Happiness consultancy and is author of Beyond Happiness: How Authentic Leaders Prioritize Purpose and People for Growth and Impact, Grand Central Publishing, October 2021.