Research has repeatedly shown a connection between how employees perceive the meaningfulness of their work and their level of engagement.  Some call it “purpose”; others use “higher purpose.” By whatever name you call it, the concept focuses on employees’ desire for a deeper role in a larger context that goes beyond just satisfying commercial and operational goals. And this sense of a greater purpose is increasingly recognized as a powerful driver of workforce attraction, engagement, retention and productivity.

As we noted in a recent blog posting, Net Impact released a report a few years ago that reached this conclusion: two thirds (65%) of workers and students said that “the potential to contribute to society” and “a job that will make the world a better place” is very important to them, with about one in four deeming this to be essential. More recently, Global brand consultants Calling Brands, found similar results.

So what is “purpose”?  Most agree that it is something that goes beyond the typical mission statement, beyond fulfillment of commercial and operational goals.  “Purpose” is really characterized by a desire to make a difference in the world, to have a positive impact on society and the community.

This is where sustainability’s focus on a “triple bottom line” of social, environmental, and economic impacts can be helpful. The heart of sustainability work is finding the same intersection of benefit to the company, society, and the planet. A company that values and pursues work that simultaneously improves the environment and society is infused with a sense higher purpose. 

This is much more than “feel-good speak.” And who better to provide the hard proof than a “Big Four” financial accounting firm?

KPMG recently became convinced that the dots that connect purpose, engagement, and morale are very real.  As profiled in a recent Harvard Business Review article, KPMG asked their employees a seemingly simple question: “What do you do at KPMG?”  Some of the responses, collected in a video called “KPMG: We Shape History” revealed some long-forgotten roles that KPMG played in some pretty impressive historical achievements, like assisting the Allies in fighting the Nazis, helping to resolve some of the issues in the Iranian hostage crisis, or certifying the results of the election of Nelson Mandela.

The question also encouraged the employees to “see themselves not simply as professionals executing audits, for example, but as members of a profession that helps millions of American families make better informed decisions about investing their life savings.”

Calling the program the “Higher Purpose Initiative,” KPMG provided software to employees to collect their stories showing how their work makes a difference. In just a few weeks, they collected more than 40,000 stories that were shared with the entire workforce through posters and on-line postings.

And the result for KPMG?  We’ve previously noted the stunning effect that the Higher Purpose initiative had, but it’s worth repeating:

“On our annual partner survey, 90% reported that the Higher Purpose initiative increased people’s pride in KPMG. Scores on our employee engagement survey rose to record levels as well. Less than six months into our Higher Purpose initiative 85% of employees agreed that KPMG is a great place to work; after a year the score on this same question rose to 89%. Additionally, 60% said our Higher Purpose initiative strengthened their pride in KPMG and our work. This improvement in morale also resulted in KPMG surging 17 spots on FORTUNE magazine’s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list, making us the number one-ranked Big Four firm for the first time in our history.”

In describing the results of the Higher Purpose initiative, Bruch Pfau, KPMG”s Vice Chair of Human Resources, said, “Ultimately, unleashing the untapped power of people inspired by a sense of purpose has not only heightened employee engagement, satisfaction and loyalty, but driven our employees to strive for peak performance as well.”

In today’s business competition for talent, smart companies are finding opportunity within the personal desires of their employees for deeper meaning in their work. Any company, not just those dedicated to promoting sustainable solutions, can find and tap into this resource.

Read the full Harvard Business Review article.

Read our related postings on Employee Motivation and Finding Meaning in Daily Work.