The question of how to engage employees is one of the biggest challenges facing business leaders today. According to a recent study, 70% of employees are disengaged at work. That means that only 30% of employees are engaged with the work they do on a daily basis.
This scary fact often mobilises leaders into making dramatic changes in their businesses. They start ticking all the boxes by giving people more autonomy, letting them take ownership of the work they do and the way they do it. They bring in consultants, organise team building events and company retreats, all in the name of engagement.
While these are great initiatives to implement, they don’t address the foundational element of engaging people with the work they do. That is, they don’t answer the question of “why”.
A central construct in performance and being motivated to work hard is the belief that the work we do matters. Not just on a micro level with the work we do personally, but that our work is interwoven with achieving the larger goals of the organisation. In 1962, during a visit to the NASA Space Centre, President John F. Kennedy saw a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted the tour, walked over to the janitor and asked what he was doing. The janitor stopped and responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
In their book, Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage, Scott Keller and Colin Prince show that having a sense of meaning in the work we do is not only good for people but also essential to building a business that is well-functioning and competitive. It is that connectedness between the work people do and the goals of the collective organisation that keeps employees motivated, driven and engaged.
So the question is then how do you align the work done to the overarching goals of your organisation? For that we need to turn to the underlying fundamentals of every business: it’s vision, mission, and core values.
In this blog, we define what a vision, mission and core values are, discuss why they are important, and finally, discuss how they can be used to engage employees.
Let’s dive in.
WHAT IS A VISION?
The book, Leading With Vision, written by Bonnie Hagemann, John Maketa, and Simon Vetter, defines vision as “a clear picture of a positive future state.” Let’s use a simple analogy to put that into context.
So you decide to take your family on a road trip. The car is packed and everyone is excited about reaching their final destination, a little hidden away beach, far from the holiday crowds where you can spend some time relaxing with your family. In your mind, you can already picture yourself sitting on the soft white sand, an ice cold drink in one hand and your favourite novel in the other. Your kids are at the water’s edge, building sand castles, with big smiles spread across their faces. It’s the perfect holiday.
This idyllic picture of a future version of yourself on a beautiful beach is your vision.
For every business, this looks different. Tesla gathered around the vision of “accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy,” while Zappos, the online shoe retailer, focused on “delivering happiness to customers, employees and vendors” and Walt Disney aimed to "create happiness by providing the best in entertainment for people of all ages everywhere."
2. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Every business needs to have a destination it is trying to reach. Goals around which it can organise people, prioritise resources, and start taking the steps needed to reach it. It provides the connective tissue to align effort with purpose. It provides meaning.
In 2016, a Gallup study titled How Millennials Want To Work And Live found that 60% of employees were disconnected from what their organisations were trying to achieve. A clear vision gives employees a sense of how their work is interwoven with the larger goals of the organisation, allowing them to take pride in the importance of what they do.
It also solves the “principal-agent problem,” which is the standard economic model for describing the relationship between an organisation and the people it employs. Essentially, the principal (the employer) and the agent (the employee) form a work contract. The agent is effort-averse. For a certain amount of money, he or she will deliver a certain amount of labour, and no more. Since effort is personally costly, the agent underperforms in providing it unless the principal puts contractual incentives and control systems in place to counter that tendency.
This pessimistic outlook is one that is synonymous with big and small businesses alike and is evident from the pervasiveness of performance related incentives. Although there is a place for them, extrinsic motivators can only go so far.
Conversely, there are direct links between performance and purpose. Organizations that are the best at engaging their employees achieve earnings-per-share growth that is more than four times that of their competitors. They also benefit from better customer engagement, higher productivity, better retention, fewer accidents, and are 21% more profitable.
If employees are connected mentally and emotionally to the overarching purpose of their work they are more likely to give what is referred to as “discretionary effort,” that is, they will be more willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done - in stark contrast to what is predicted by the “principal-agent problem”.
1. WHAT IS A MISSION?
The book, Leading With Vision, defines mission as the answer to the questions: “Why are you here? Why do you exist?”
Let’s turn back to our road trip analogy from before.
So you have the destination fixed in your mind and now you need to plan how to get there. You get a map and write out directions but that isn’t all you are going to need. You are also going to need to carefully consider the risks involved with driving such a long way. Staying on track for your final destination will require identifying and setting priorities.
Here are a couple of examples:
Safety - you are going to obey the rules of the road and not take any unnecessary risks.
Adventure - you plan to stop along the way to take in the sites and explore the areas you are driving through.
Health - you plan on eating healthy, going on walks, and getting enough rest.
What you have just done is create a mission statement for your trip. These priorities are used as a framework to guide your decision making and keep you on track.
So if your vision is a picture of a positive future state then your mission is what you want to prioritise on your journey there. Tesla’s mission is “to create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles” while Zappos decided to reach its destination by “providing the best customer service possible. Deliver “WOW” through service.”
Walt Disney got even more detailed by defining their mission as “being one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. Using our portfolio of brands to differentiate our content, services and consumer products, we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related products in the world.”
2. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
If a vision provides where you want to get “someday” then a mission is what you do “every day” to get there. An organisation's mission statement provides actionable guidelines around which decisions are made and sets priorities throughout your organisation.
Although a mission affects the value created by an organisation, it is not about economic exchanges. It reflects something more aspirational. It is a proverbial road map to keep employees engaged and focused on the vision the organisation wants to achieve.
The way people make decisions and do their work is what defines an organisation’s culture which can be directly linked to the performance. Since 1998, the 100 best companies to work for have outperformed the S&P 500, 2 to 1.
The way people work can also be directly linked to their levels of engagement. People who are empowered to make decisions, who are aligned with the larger goals of the organisation, and who can attribute the work they do with achieving those goals are more highly engaged.
1. WHAT ARE VALUES?
Hageman, Maketa, and Vetter define values as “the way things will and will not be done.” Core values are broad statements that reflect the fundamental beliefs of your organisation.
Once again let’s turn back to our road trip analogy for a perspective on core values.
Your vision defines the final destination, your mission details the directions and priorities that will help you reach your desired endpoint, and your values define which principles and ideals are important to you.
For your road trip, you might decide the following are important:
Quality time - spending time together as a family, strengthening relationships.
Respect - being considerate of each other as well as fellow travellers.
Helpfulness - lending a hand to make the journey easier for each other.
For an organisation, the vision and mission provide relatively practical guideline while core values are less tangible. They are an expression of an organisation’s culture which guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms. Essential, they are a way of thinking.
Patagonia, the outdoor clothing brand’s, mission is to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Their mission was then enforced by their values, namely:
Quality (the pursuit of ever greater quality in everything we do)
Integrity (relationships built on integrity and respect)
Environmentalism (serve as a catalyst for personal and corporate action)
Not Bound by Convention (our success – and much of the fun – lies in developing innovative ways of doing things).
2. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Values provide a lens through which organisations distil their view of the world. It allows them to provide a clear list of ideals for employees to strive for on a personal capacity and collectively as part of the larger organisation. On this basis, organisations can engage employees on an altruistic level adding to the meaning and importance with which they view their work.
When the values of the organisation are in alignment with the aspirational values of employees, the result is high performance. In Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras show that companies that consistently focused on building strong values‐driven cultures over a period of several decades outperformed companies that did not by a factor of six, and outperformed the general stock market by a factor of fifteen.
The reason for this lies in the effect core values have on employees. From an employee engagement perspective there are three clear benefits:
Better alignment - people and teams across an organisation are better aligned to achieve the same goals when they work under shared values.
Reduce conflict - values define what is important in an organisation. This provides a clear focus which in turn reduces conflict.
Faster decision-making - core values provide a framework for decision-making by defining which ideals are most important to an organisation. This framework speeds up the time it takes to make important decisions, allowing teams to move quickly.
An organisation’s vision, mission, and values are essential in defining its culture and engaging its employees but in order to achieve that it has to be aligned and connected to the work done by its employees.
According to the Harvard Business Review in order to engage employees, leaders must communicate how their work contributes to achieving the organisation's goals and they must support employees’ ability to achieve them.
Your vision, mission, and values need to be more than just lip service. They have to be directly tied to the output of your employees and aligned with their values. This interwoven relationship is key for organisations wanting to achieve their visions.
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