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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2019-10-29 10:53

Cathryn Barnard



The narrative around organisational purpose has exploded this year - business leaders are finally waking up to the idea that workers want to know that the...


Liz and I were having a conversation last week about ’purpose’ at work.  

The narrative around organisational purpose has exploded this year - business leaders are finally waking up to the idea that workers want to know that the work they do actually counts for something.  

Our debate, however, centred around whether or not articulating and sharing a common purpose in itself enables people to contribute to their highest potential.  

Achieving one’s highest potential is arguably what Abraham Maslow defined as ’self-actualisation’, in his Hierarchy of Needs, and it sits at the top of his needs pyramid. 

As environmental and social challenges accelerate, it’s becoming clear that the commercial world needs to radically shift its operating model. This won’t be easy, but social pressure is mounting. Consumers, faced with increasing choice, are starting to look beyond pricing to ponder the ’ethicability’ of goods and services.  

Demand for transparency is also showing up in the workplace. Workers increasingly behave like consumers in their attitude towards their work and careers, and seek more than just a pay cheque. They want to feel they’re doing something that matters, and so we see a rise in the number of job-seekers looking for employers who stand for something and who share similar values. Organisations that don’t acknowledge this are already struggling to find the best talent.  

Changing socio-cultural attitudes towards work drive a shift in approach, and savvy organisations are issuing more public and ’ethical’ statements of organisational purpose.  

This trend hit a high note in August. Much was made of the roundtable of global corporates, led by JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, announcing their intent to scrap ’share-holder first’ ideology, with a refocus towards social responsibility. We look forward to seeing what changes these organisations make to improve society.  

But does the current conversation around organisational purpose miss something? 

Of course, any dialogue about organisational transparency and values is a good thing. Research has shown that when people share a common purpose at work, productivity and business growth accelerates. When people feel an intrinsic sense of purpose, they are more likely to self-actualise, or operate at their highest potential - all great for business. 

But, we’d argue, focusing solely on organisational purpose is one dimensional. Particularly if we overlook the two preceding levels in Maslow’s hierarchy - those of our need to feel a sense of belonging, and our need for esteem, which, for us, means a need to feel valued. 

Too many organisations lack focus and application in these areas. How can we instil a sense of belonging in our organisations, when human contribution is increasingly seen as a dispensable resource that can be off-shored or outsourced when financial targets require balance sheet adjustments?  

21st Century organisational survival is already increasingly contingent on workers collaborating to both solve complex problems and come up with fresh ideas for innovative products and services, that meet the needs of increasingly fast-paced markets.  

Collaboration and high performance are dependent on psychological safety, which in turn underpins a sense of connection and belonging.  

In The Fearless Organization, Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson, describes psychological safety as: 

"[...] a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution." 

Just how safe can we possibly feel when a pervasive trend in business for the last half century has been to outsource headcount, in pursuit of bottom line efficiencies? How secure can we feel when the threat of redundancy, triggered by the rise of technology automation, looms over us, as organisations continue to place profits before people and planet? 

Most organisations can’t currently predict the extent to which their workforce will be impacted by technological efficiency. Even though think-tank forecasts indicate that very few roles will be unchanged by automation, way too few organisations are doubling down on workplace learning, in preparation for this disruptive transformation.  

It’s perfectly fine to place organisational purpose at the forefront of corporate strategy, but only when coupled with equal focus on the extent to which workers feel a sense of belonging and security, so that they can feel psychological safety at work.  

In the age of hyper-individualism, employees are often encouraged to compete against one another for career progression. This leaves people feeling more disconnected from one another than ever. Disconnection breeds insecurity, which completely undermines self-esteem. 

Our volatile and ambiguous commercial landscapes require brave and connective leaders. 21st Century leadership requires situational humility and a mindset that rejects hierarchy in favour of collective intelligence, plurality of perspective, teamwork and inclusion. 

Focusing on company purpose is easy. Leaning in to the messiness of human emotion and focusing on the emotional wellbeing of our teams is hard. Especially when we no longer know what tomorrow will bring. Yet psychological safety is essential for learning, innovation, collaboration, engagement, high performance - all the things we know will underpin organisational survival in the 21st Century. 

So, until psychological safety becomes central to organisational culture, anything else is just window-dressing. We overlook our other human needs at our peril.


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