If you're serious about purpose at work, you must flatten the hierarchy

Unless we change our organizational DNA, purpose-filled work will be remain largely confined to the managerial elite.

Corporate purpose is all the rage these days, and not without reason. Organizations with a compelling sense of purpose--one that is deeply held and widely embraced--perform significantly better than their competitors.  Southwest Airlines is a classic case of a purpose-filled organization, and in Humanocracy we lay out the specific ways in which its purpose (giving people the freedom to fly) is instrumental to the company's success with customers, employees, and shareholders.

Several organizations are trying to tap into the power of purpose in several ways, like appointing a chief purpose officer, unveiling a brand-new purpose statements, and inviting employees to craft a personal purpose that is in line with the the organization's.

Some of these steps may be helpful (though I have have my doubts about the designation of  yet another C-level czar).  But the results of a recent McKinsey survey of over 1,000 U.S.-based workers suggest they won't be anywhere near enough.  To see why, consider this chart from the survey results:

A stark ‘purpose gap’ exists between upper management and the front line.

The more senior you are, the greater your ability to live out your purpose at work.  This hierarchal purpose gap is massive: nearly all executives and senior managers report being able to do so (85%). Less than one in five among first-line supervisors and nonsupervisory employees say the same (15%).  

Let's do some quick math to figure out how many people are impacted by this "vertical inequality" in purpose.  Assume that 1,000 people in a 10,000-person organization are in managerial and executive positions (a fair approximation given the overall number of managers and execs employed in the US).  This means that the total number of employees who get to live their life's purpose at work is a scant 2,200 or 22% of the total (85% of 1,000 + 15% of 9,000). Managers and executives make up nearly 40% of the lucky few.

You might think this gap isn't such a big deal because lower-ranked employees are likely to find their life's purpose outside of the office.  But you'd be wrong. Two thirds of  non-managerial respondents claimed their sense of purpose is largely defined by work (a little lower than executives and managers, but still a decisive majority).

What's worse, the hierarchical inequality extends to not just to drawing purpose from one's work, but achieving it. The McKinsey survey finds that executives are nearly eight times more likely than other employees to say that their purpose is fulfilled through their job.

This asymmetry in purpose is a real problem, since it leads to a widespread waste of capacity, initiative, and potential quality of life, as the McKinsey survey shows:

If we're serious about addressing the uneven distribution of meaning and purpose at work, then we must flatten the hierachy.  Most organizations operate with authoritarian power structures that stifle agency and voice for the vast majority of employees. For instance, consider that:

  • Just 15% of employees around the world are emotionally and intellectually engaged in their work, according to Gallup;
  • Only 1 in 5 employees believe their ideas matter at work;
  • Fewer than 1 in 10 employees have the freedom to experiment at work;
  • 70% of all jobs in the US economy require little or no originality.

It doesn't take Einstein to figure out that people who are constantly on the receiving end of important decisions like strategy, objectives, and work organization, will find it difficult to internalize the corporate purpose.  And they'll struggle even more to align it with their own life's purpose.  

Purpose-filled organizations like Southwest have fewer rungs in the hierarchical ladder (with far more muted power differentials between levels), authority is pushed to the front lines as much as possible, every individual and role is viewed as indispensable, and the fruits of collective success are broadly shared.  Every member has a chance to fulfill their and the organization's purpose--not because of a fancy corporate program or the action of a single enlightened executive, but because that's what the entire system is designed to achieve.  And when purpose and practices evolve in these organizations, they do so with plenty of input from employees and other stakeholders. Change is socially constructed, not something that is cascaded from the top.  

Getting started

Here are some ways you can shrink the hierarchy and expand the sense of purpose of everyone working in your organization:

  1. Do whatever you can to provide team members with the skills and information to exercise their judgment. Help them become less reliant on their managers.
  2. Ask your team to identify areas where greater autonomy would help them deliver a better customer experience or improve operations, and then expand their decision-making prerogatives.
  3. Recraft the mission statement for your unit or, if possible, the entire organization, in a way that makes it emotionally resonant for every team member and gives people a common cause.  Involve everyone in the process, seeking input from voices that are typically marginalized.
  4. Create more opportunities for individuals to fulfill their purpose. Rotate team members across roles, challenge people with stretching assignments, open up management training to frontline, team members, and take time to mentor others.