Organizational Change
How Job Purposing Can Convert Your Sustainability Practices Into Superb Management

“I hate my job.”

It’s a sign of a warped world that most of us have heard friends, family or our own lips make this gloomy statement. Chances are that four out of every five people working for you right this minute would rather be not working. This is the percentage of global workers who are not “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to work” — in other words, not engaged — according to Gallup.

Why does this matter? Disengaged workers produce less and turn over more. As a result, companies and teams with largely disengaged workers underperform financially by more than 50 percent compared to those with mostly engaged workers.

Getting your team to say, “I like my job!”

Fortunately, as a manager interested in sustainable workplace practices, you can lift your team’s engagement, performance and wellbeing. Whether you manage one or one hundred thousand employees, you can broaden the social mission of their jobs with the opportunity to serve a social cause. This is a practice called job purposing. While job purposing can focus on any societal issue, the environment is a strong choice. Environmental sustainability is increasingly ranked as a top public concern, and it affects everyone - male or female, rich or poor, parents or not.

Let me demonstrate how you, as a manager, might job purpose using three work team examples: One team that sells technology solutions to small businesses, one team that cleans hotel rooms, and one team that drives trucks.

You could offer a sales team the opportunity to help customers be more sustainable by attending online training on sustainable business practices and becoming “Eco Advocates.” Now when they sell a cloud solution to a small accounting firm, they can improve the value proposition by offering to help reduce prospective customers’ utilities, solid waste and water use and costs. This incorporation of environmental sustainability into their everyday workplace experience is job purposing and, thus, will increase their morale, engagement and performance.

What about housekeeping? To purpose the jobs of a housekeeping team, you could offer them the opportunity to collect partially used soap, which you then deliver to Clean the World, an organization that sterilizes, recycles and distributes it to impoverished families across the globe. Now housekeepers have the option of helping, every workday, to build a world in which preventable infections no longer kill 8,000 children every day — and perfectly good soap is not wasted. They have a purposed job.

Finally, let’s take the truck drivers. What if your team delivers packages or reads utility gauges? How might that job be purposed? Well, consider the possibility of bringing in a local environmental organization to train interested drivers to spot and identify environmental red flags along their route — these could include invasive species, dump sites or non-weatherized buildings. When drivers spot red flags, they use their company-provided GPS to notify a partner nonprofit organization of the precise location so that the partners can take action. Thus, these drivers help eliminate elements that damage the environment every time they show up to work. They have a purposed job.

We can stop imagining now, since job purposing is real. The above examples describe teams at HP, Caesars Entertainment and FedEx, respectively. Consistent with the theory behind job purposing, HP has found that participation in Eco Advocates and other job-purposing initiatives boosts employee engagement. Hopefully, you get the idea that no matter what your team does, you can purpose their jobs. You can lift their engagement, performance and wellbeing.

Why would your team be more engaged after their jobs were purposed? In social science terms, job purposing is offering a workplace opportunity for “pro-social behavior,” defined as voluntary actions to benefit others or society. For millennia, evolutionary forces have hard-wired us for pro-social behavior. When solo, our ancestors were weak and vulnerable, unable to keep watch for predators while sleeping, hunting large game or staying warm. We’ve survived because we clumped into communities in which each individual contributes to the collective good.

Primatologist Frans De Waal put it this way: “We are group animals, who rely on each other, need each other, and therefore [evolution has ensured we] take pleasure in helping.” The pleasure comes from the endorphins that our brains secrete — the same chemicals produced during sex. That’s how powerful this little-known “helper’s high,” how primal our affinity for societal contribution, is.

Lacking a purposed job, your team has no chemically generated euphoria. Their jobs are transactions, cost-benefit calculations of their frontal cortexes. Their brains tell them, “Save your energy for something more meaningful, like your friends or family.” In other words, their physiology is minimizing their engagement.

Job purposing drivers of success

So, yes, good news! “Doing well by doing good” is real and actionable to you as a manager. There is a caveat, however. The saying needs an addition: Doing well by doing good well.

I’ve seen highly productive job purposing and I’ve also seen corporate sustainability programs that in no way improve the employee workplace experience. The typical employee volunteer event advertised on company intranets is wonderful charity, but usually does not meaningfully change employees’ relationship to their jobs. Will donating soup cans to a food drive increase their engagement? Probably not. Neither will asking employees to serve on nonprofit boards of directors.

The best job purposing meets all or most of six design elements of effective job purposing, summarized in the acronym WE GIVE:

Work-native

Meld the community involvement into the day-to-day job so that the job itself is transformed. The above examples — minimizing carbon emissions, reducing solid waste and preventable disease, and restoring natural habitat — materially changed the jobs themselves.

A social impact that is unrelated to an employee’s regular tasks is unlikely to improve job satisfaction. If you invite a member of your team to a weekend coat drive that has nothing to do with his job, he might think more highly of you but would not like his job any better.

Job purposing doesn’t provide a great alternative to work. Job purposing makes work itself great.

Evolving

There’s a reason that the workplace recycling program you instituted three years ago no longer lifts employees’ spirits. It has become normalized. An endearing human trait is to continually yearn for increasingly greater achievements. The best job purposing feels fresh and is comfortably challenging to employees.

Group-based

If the job purposing is conducted with colleagues, it automatically becomes more work-native and is, thus, higher impact. Team activities have another advantage over individual volunteering. A key driver of workplace engagement is a strong social network. Job purposing that meets this engagement driver will be an even brighter experience for employees. Data from HP suggests that after the work-native element, the best thing you can do to increase employee engagement through community involvement is to make it team-based.

Impact-evident

Seeing the good that results from our social efforts boosts the engagement lift. Consider what happened to a group of telemarketers raising funds for scholarships after experiencing a 10-minute face-to-face talk with a recipient who described the positive impact the scholarship had on his life. Callers raised 171 percent more revenue the following month! This result was so startling that the researcher, Adam Grant from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, suspected something had gone awry in the experiment. Only after replicating the experiment five times did he conclude that a concrete sense of social impact directly affects engagement and productivity.

Try to design the job purposing so that, first, it truly makes a social impact and, second, your team is cognizant of it. If it’s not possible for them see the reduction in solid waste, show them a video about the nonprofit partner or share the thank you card that a family sent.

Voluntary

No one likes to be cornered — even if it’s to save our natural surroundings. When an individual does not freely choose the job-purposing activity, their helper’s high is dampened. Try to give employees choice. It is often sufficient to simply offer a choice from a short list of activities.

Employee-owned

Psychologists have established that the most motivated workers have a sense of autonomy over what they do and how. This applies to work purposing as well. Employees who have helped design the job purposing activity, even if it’s just by providing feedback or voting on various options, will likely get more satisfaction and experience a greater engagement lift from the job purposing.

Rekindling our ancestral joy of work

The most ancient form of human work — hunting and gathering — was inherently job-purposed. More than just a transaction necessary to feed ourselves and our offspring, bringing down and consuming a wooly mammoth was a community endeavor that benefitted dozens or even hundreds of individuals. Most anthropologists believe we did not dislike, but rather enjoyed, this ancient work.

We enjoyed work so much, in fact, that hunter-gatherer communities do not even have a term equivalent to “work.” Our modern way of bringing home the bacon, on the other hand, can be described with a plethora of negative terms: labor, grind, toil, slog. The contrast between modern and ancient work is most obvious when we consider that many of us engage in ancient work as a way to recover from modern work. We consider hunting deer, catching fish and gathering berries as leisure activities, and happily pay for the privilege.

After many years of studying the history of work, Richard Donkin, a journalist with the Financial Times, concluded, “The creatures that stepped down from the trees and began to roam upright over the land appear to have developed something beyond the need to survive … they seem to have moved with a sense of purpose.” Donkin states that this has been passed down to us. “If anything drives our organizations today, it must be a similar purpose.”

Modern organizations have sterilized work into a collection of tasks out of touch with what is fulfilling. What could be more natural than helping our teams rekindle the sense of purpose that their natural history has bestowed on them? That’s what your interest in environmental workplace practices can do for your team.

Learn more at Bea’s Job Purposing Blog***.***

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