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How purpose became the new “it” term and let companies off the hook in the process

April 25, 2019

These days, it won’t surprise anyone to hear that the millennial generation ushered in a new perception of organizations. The 2018 Deloitte millennial survey found that 63 percent more millennial workers believe the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society” over “generating profits.” And over the past year, it has felt like everyone—and I mean everyone from employees to customers to even investors—was telling organizations they needed to be something more than entities that made money. Blackrock’s CEO Larry Fink captured it best in his 2019 letter to CEOs… when he called on companies to “embrace a greater responsibility” as “society is increasingly looking to companies, both public and private, to address pressing social and economic issues.” And we termed this issue ourselves in Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report, “The Rise of the Social Enterprise.”

Purpose, as Mr. Fink describes, “guides culture, provides a framework for consistent decision-making, and, ultimately, helps sustain long-term financial returns for the shareholders.” Culture, decision-making, and financial returns are all essential elements of organizational success. As a 20-year veteran in the human capital space, nothing makes me happier than hearing a CEO not only acknowledge culture, but champion its importance. But the word that we need to key in on here is “organizational.” Purpose is about and for the organization and that is precisely where it can fall short. While it will inspire, while it will guide, and while it will serve as a valuable framework, it will not solve the day-to-day realities and issues that the average worker is facing and ultimately what they need to be successful.

Because what workers are looking for is not purpose, but instead meaning. Meaning is humanistic. And in today’s workplace, it is the human element that is fading quickly. Whether it’s algorithms figuring out what tasks you should perform, nudges encouraging you to behave a certain way, or data indicating who you are and what matters to you, technology has invaded not only our workplace, but our identity at work. A few weeks back, as I sat in a conference amongst today’s leading CHROs, one futurist put this sentiment in the bleakest of terms, calling today’s workers “digital serfs.” Now, I personally think that’s an extreme view, but the question it poses still remains—with the advancements in automation and AI rapidly entering the workplace, with the future of jobs in question, with a massive skills gap on the horizon, and with more people defining their identity by their work, how will companies put meaning back into the workplace? I believe that is the organizational mandate of our time.

So, what is meaning and how is it measured? Last week, President Obama answered that question quite eloquently when he said, “Companies have to be built asking themselves, ‘how are we treating our employees?’” It is the treatment of the worker that defines meaning. How are you investing in their growth and development? How are you rewarding them for the value they are providing? How are you helping them on their personal journey of lifelong learning? How are you ensuring that workers aren’t just seen as a productive feature of the organization (as serfs have historically been defined), but rather as meaningful contributors? And, maybe most importantly, how are you reimagining the work of the future to promote these ideals?

The work is where the meaning lies. In order to truly tap into the power of human potential, work must be reimagined. By definition, when you reimagine, you form a mental image of something that is not present. Applied in the context of work, this means that you are solving problems that are unseen. You are asking yourselves not “how do I change this work process?” but instead “how do I shift this work outcome?” Reimagining work requires new ways of thinking and, in turn, creates opportunities for continuous learning, for accelerated development, and for professional and personal growth. That is where and how meaning can be found.

So, to all the organizations out there, please define your purpose. Share it, shout it, celebrate it as much as you can. But realize that your purpose has to be more than just a reason for being; it should be the reason your workers thrive. And in today’s world of job uncertainty, wage stagnation, and an ever-growing economic divide, there is no greater meaning than that.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn, March 17, 2019.

Erica Volini is the US Human Capital leader for Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Originally published at Capital H blog