Give Employees Purpose and Ownership at Work and They Will Stay, Experts Say

Give Employees Purpose and Ownership at Work and They Will Stay
To create a work environment that is diverse, inclusive and equitable, businesses need to understand that the systems and institutions we work within are fundamentally inequitable.
  • How can SMBs create a work culture conducive to purpose and ownership?
  • What is purpose and ownership in the workspace?
  • SMBs benefit from giving workers a voice as retention improves

Increasingly, employees across the globe are prioritizing ‘purpose’ and ‘ownership’ in their working lives. As well as making a living, workers are looking for autonomy and they want to know that their work is having a positive impact on the world.

Small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) are well placed to help workers find purpose and ownership in what they do. This is because SMBs are more versatile and flexible than large established corporations with entrenched practices and procedures. 

As proven during the pandemic, agile businesses are able to pivot at speed. But when it comes to instilling a sense of purpose and ownership, systemic changes are often needed. 

In this article, we’ll hone in on the various ways SMBs can create a work culture that is conducive to purpose and ownership. We’ll cover everything from lifelong learning initiatives to combating internal biases. 

But first, let’s get to grips with the terminology. 

What is ‘purpose’?

Purpose is a person’s enduring intention to fulfill a long-term aim that a) means something to them on a personal level, and b) has a positive impact on the world. 

Aims that contribute to an individual’s sense of purpose tend to be the ones that also impact other people’s lives, such as developing a cure for a disease, employing people in a business or teaching someone else a new skill. 

Our sense of purpose – what drives us – evolves over time. It’s important to bear in mind that purpose is a journey, not a destination. It’s what propels us and gives our personal and professional lives meaning.


Are we becoming more purpose-driven?

The pandemic has prompted many of us to reassess our values and think about whether we’re living up to them in what we do both inside and outside of the workplace. 

There’s an appetite for making choices that align with our values, and people are evaluating whether their employer’s values align with their own. 

Closer attention is being paid to which organizations treat their workers fairly and use sustainable practices to minimize environmental damage, and which don’t. 

On the whole, people’s career choices are being driven by a desire to make a positive change in the world. In the future of work, it’s safe to assume that there will be a rise in people who want to find meaning in their work by opting for purpose-led companies.


What is ‘ownership’?

Ownership is about being accountable for something and taking the initiative. In a work context, it’s about seeing a task or responsibility through to completion. 

Ownership doesn’t mean working in isolation, however. It relies on collaboration and delegation – and seeking help from others when necessary.  

We’re living in an age where the notion of ownership is changing. 

We used to associate the word ownership with the purchase of an asset such as a home or car. Now that ownership in this sense is becoming out of reach for a growing number of people, its meaning is becoming more abstract.  

Perhaps in the future of work, having responsibility and ‘ownership’ will become even more important in helping people feel like they have more control over their lives. 


Helping workers identify the importance and purpose of their work

The first step to enabling your workers to identify the importance of their work is to define your organization’s purpose. Your SMB’s purpose is the only thing you have direct control over. Attempting to summarize it in a sentence is a good place to start. 

People are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to differentiating businesses who talk about purpose from those who actually practice what they preach. 

Is your organization living up to its values? 

Spend some time with your team to reflect on what your company’s values are and open up a dialogue on what impact it has on the world. On balance, is it net positive or negative?

A McKinsey & Company survey found that employees are five times more likely to be excited to work at a company that spends time reflecting on the impact it makes in the world. 

It also found that workers who are given opportunities to reflect on their own sense of purpose and how it aligns with the company they work for are almost three times more likely to feel like their purpose is fulfilled at work. 

Conversely, people who aren’t given opportunities to reflect on their purpose had just a 7 percent chance of fulfilling it at work.

Do the managers within your SMB talk about purpose? Do they lead with empathy? Is there a culture of sharing and psychological safety?

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

According to Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation, employees must move through the following four stages of psychological safety before they feel comfortable to make valuable contributions:

  • Stage 1 – Inclusion Safety: Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. In this stage, you feel safe to be yourself and are accepted for who you are, including your unique attributes and defining characteristics.
  • Stage 2 – Learner Safety: Learner safety satisfies the need to learn and grow. In this stage, you feel safe to exchange in the learning process, by asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes.
  • Stage 3 – Contributor Safety: Contributor safety satisfies the need to make a difference. You feel safe to use your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution.
  • Stage 4 – Challenger Safety: Challenger safety satisfies the need to make things better. You feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there’s an opportunity to change or improve.

McKinsey & Company’s survey also explored the impact of psychological safety, and found the respondents who experienced little psychological safety in the workplace had a 0.5% chance of fulfilling their purpose at work. 

Of course, it’s also important to provide opportunities for workers to be able to fulfill their purpose at work. 

SMBs should begin by seeking out ways for employees to find meaning in their daily working lives; they should weave purpose into the fabric of their brand values and operations too. 

There are lots of ways to do this. Take John Lewis, for example:

John Lewis calls its employees “partners” because the company is actually the largest employee-owned business in the UK. This is a great example of how purpose can be fulfilled through ownership – in this case, by literally owning a portion of the business. 

The thinktank Ownership at Work published a report that found employee ownership, whether achieved through direct shareholdings or an employee-owned trust, is popular across all locations and industries. 

“When you are an owner you recognise the need to boost your skills levels. You know that the company’s productivity feeds directly into your pay packet and the company’s success. There is no need to fake enthusiasm or force yourself to go the extra mile when the business in hand is very much your business.” – Ownership at Work report

Some companies help their employees find purpose outside of work by offering opportunities to volunteer for a non-profit for a specified number of days per month, or by offering sabbaticals. 

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    While this can prove effective, it shouldn’t eclipse finding purpose in the “here and now”.

    Meet employees where they-are-to-help-them-achieve fulfilment at work
    Source: McKinsey & Company.

    Giving workers a voice and making them feel valued 

    As we mentioned earlier on, for an individual to achieve a sense of purpose, they must feel psychologically safe in their work environment. And for a work environment to be psychologically secure, it needs to be diverse, inclusive and equitable. 

    We’ve all heard the terms diversity, inclusion and equity.

    But do we really know what they mean and how they apply to the workplace?

    Let’s recap.

    • Diversity – is about how people differ in terms of identity markers such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, religion – and many more. It also includes intersectionality, which “takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face”. (source: yw boston)
    • Inclusion – is about creating a workplace that values, respects and supports everyone, enabling all individuals to let their voice be heard and activity listens in order to evolve in a way that benefits everyone. SMBs that focus on diversity but not inclusion usually find it difficult to retain workers, who may feel unsupported, undervalued and lacking in purpose. 
    • Equity – is about providing everyone with the opportunity to learn, grow and advance in the workplace. It’s about systemic fairness and equality for all – an SMB that values equity will strive to dismantle barriers to access so that everyone can participate, regardless of their identity.  

    To create a work environment that is diverse, inclusive and equitable, businesses need to understand that the systems and institutions we work within are fundamentally inequitable. 

    Managing diversity, inclusion and equity can be more challenging in the context of a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. 

    In an article for Harvard Business Review, Lily Zheng, a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist and executive coach, provides some practical tips on how businesses can adapt D&I efforts to the reality of the crisis:

    “Prioritize knowledge-gathering. Start by collecting information on the pain points and opportunities that are most pressing. 

    Several companies I work with added questions related to the Covid-19 crisis to their weekly pulse surveys and disaggregated the results by demographics to gauge how different employees were coping. 

    Be creative: if you choose to survey, consider whether you’ll use a company-wide survey or smaller surveys within units or teams, and if you want to develop the survey in-house or work with specialized third-party services.” – Lily Zheng


    How do SMBs benefit from promoting equity and purpose?

    More profitable 

    Various studies, including one by McKinsey & Company, point to the fact that companies that do well in terms of diversity, inclusion and equity perform better financially. 

    The report reveals a significant correlation between a  more diverse leadership team and financial outperformance.

    For example, companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation.

    Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. 

    On the other hand, companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic/ cultural diversity were 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability.

    Lower employee turnover

    Investing in purpose-driven values leads to lower staff churn. No SMB owner underestimates the value of retaining talent, especially when you consider that it takes on average 42 days to fill a regular job position (the equivalent of 378 working hours). 

    In 2018, the Work Institute reported that employers lost over $600 billion because they lacked an effective strategy to retain their best team members. 

    Workers are more likely to stay put in a  company that prioritizes purpose and enables them to learn new skills. 

    Upskilling and reskilling will continue to play a huge role in the future of work. As technology continues to evolve, workers need to learn new competencies so they can future-proof their own employability and support the wider economy. 

    Lifelong learning should never be undervalued. In fact, employees who are happy with positive learning opportunities in the workplace are 21% less likely to quit, according to a survey by Degreed in partnership with Harvard Business Publishing. 

    Make lifelong learning a purpose-driven employee benefit by offering sponsored online learning opportunities and partnering with local education providers. 

    At a time of uncertainty and rapid change such as the one we’re living through now, workers may feel nervous about the viability of their job role in the future. Or they might simply feel stuck in a cycle and unable to progress. 

    Lifelong learning can help people take ownership of their own progression. Working towards a goal, such as gaining a qualification, learning a new skill or teaching others, can provide us with a renewed sense of purpose. 

    Society and the economy benefit from the increased productivity and overall health of workers who feel like their work matters. Supportive managers nurture happier employees and equitable workplaces pave the way for innovation and positive change. 

    Is it time to reevaluate your workplace culture to make it more purpose-driven?

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