Purpose and the employee


Some people want to change the world. But not everyone

WHAT IS THE meaning of mayonnaise? For Unilever, a consumer-goods giant whose products are all meant to stand for something, the purpose of its Hellmann’s brand is to reduce food waste by making leftovers tasty. For Terry Smith, a fund manager fed up with Unilever’s dipping share price, this is crazy. “The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913,” he wrote earlier this month. “So we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert—salads and sandwiches).”

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Mr Smith’s concern is the financial performance of Unilever (in the face of investor disquiet, the firm is now planning management cuts and an overhaul of its operating model). But his underlying point, that doing the obvious job well can be purpose enough, is one that has much wider application. For it is true of colleagues as well as condiments.

The very idea of a purposeful employee conjures up a specific type of person. They crave a meaningful job that changes society for the better. When asked about their personal passion projects, they don’t say “huh?” or “playing Wordle”. They are concerned about their legacy and almost certainly have a weird diet.

Yet this is not the only way to think about purpose-driven employees. New research from Bain, a consultancy, into the attitudes of 20,000 workers across ten countries confirms that people are motivated by different things.

Bain identifies six different archetypes, far too few to reflect the complexity of individuals but a lot better than a single lump of employees. “Pioneers” are the people on a mission to change the world; “artisans” are interested in mastering a specific skill; “operators” derive a sense of meaning from life outside work; “strivers” are more focused on pay and status; “givers” want to do work that directly improves the lives of others; and “explorers” seek out new experiences.

These archetypes are unevenly distributed across different industries and roles. Pioneers in particular are more likely to cluster in management roles. The Bain survey finds that 25% of American executives match this archetype, but only 9% of the overall US sample does so. Another survey of American workers carried out by McKinsey, a consulting firm, in 2020 found that executives were far likelier than other respondents to say that their purpose was fulfilled by their job.

This skew matters if managers blindly project their own ideas of purpose onto others. Having a purpose does not necessarily mean a desire to found a startup, head up the career ladder or log into virtual Davos. Some people are fired up by the prospect of learning new skills or of deepening their expertise.

Others derive purpose from specific kinds of responsibility. Research by a couple of academics at NEOMA Business School and Boston University looked at the experience of employees of the Parisian metro system who had been newly promoted into managerial roles. People who had been working as station agents before their elevation were generally satisfied by their new roles. But supervisors who had previously worked as train drivers were noticeably less content: they felt their roles had less meaning when they no longer had direct responsibility for the well-being of passengers.

Firms need to think more creatively about career progression than promoting people into management jobs. IBM, for example, has a fellowship programme designed to give a handful of its most gifted technical employees their own form of recognition each year.

Another mistake is to conflate an employee’s commitment with good performance. A recent paper from Yuna Cho of the University of Hong Kong and Winnie Jiang of INSEAD, a business school, describes an experiment in which groups of people with managerial experience listened to two actors playing the part of colleagues. One group heard an “employee” saying that he was looking forward to retirement; another group heard the employee saying that he did not want to retire at all. In all other respects the conversations were the same. The observers assigned a bigger bonus and a higher raise to the employee who appeared to have more passion.

There is some logic here. Employees with a calling could well be more dedicated. But that doesn’t necessarily make them better at the job. And teams are likelier to perform well if they blend types of employees: visionaries to inspire, specialists to deliver and all those people who want to do a job well but not think about it at weekends. Like mayonnaise, the secret is in the mixture.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:

Drinking in the office (Jan 22nd)
Remote work and the importance of writing (Jan 15th 2022)
The rise of performative work (Jan 8th 2022)

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Purpose and the employee”

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