Over the last several years, researchers and companies have proved that a sense of purpose affects performance. It feeds peoples’ desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, and inspires new inventions and better ways of doing things. But creating purpose that connects with everyone across an entire organization is easier said than done. Our research discovered that a barrier to innovation that trips up even well meaning organizations has to do with front-line folks experiencing much less purpose than others higher up in the company. And if employees feel they’re not sharing in the company’s mission and excitement, they quickly feel excluded from innovation as well.
We see this all the time in employee comment data. Employees are much more likely to innovate if they feel they are part of something incredible. We mean that literally. Highly engaged employees used phrases like “incredibly hardworking environment,” “incredible energy that is motivating” and “incredible company journey.”
Unfortunately, those on the front line often don’t experience the same level of awesomeness. Employees in roles like sales associate, customer service representative and field service technician can feel left out because they’re missing out on rewards due to their personal background or their position, or based on day-to-day negative experiences.
Unfair rewards, in particular, can undermine purpose and inspiration on the front lines. Consider this employee comment:
“When the rate of pay goes up and someone has been here for 8 years and a new person who has been here a year is then getting almost the same rate of pay as the person who has been working her for 8 years. That is not right. The people who have been here much longer should also get a substantial increase to make it fair. It really burns the people who have been here a long time to know that someone brand new with not a lot of experience is making almost the same pay.”
The picture here is of people whose energy is going into burning anger and resentment, rather than flashes of insight for how to move the organization forward. Perceived inequities in pay or perks, in other words, can prevent people in the trenches from tapping into the deeper purpose of the organization, and therefore dampen their creativity and commitment.
We also found that employees with certain characteristics and roles are at risk for feeling marginalized. These include long-tenured employees and remote workers. Employees with 16-20 years of tenure are 20% less likely to have meaningful opportunities for innovation than employees at the organization for less than two years. As this statistic suggests, it’s easy for leaders to take their long-standing staffers for granted, or to give up on keeping those folks fired up.
It’s also easy to lose sight of employees who are physically out of sight. People that mention being remote or in the field are 56% more likely to feel excluded from innovation. You can hear the sense of being neglected in this employee’s comment:
“The company is growing and changing very rapidly… My hope is that management doesn’t forget the fact that the field personnel that work here have a large combined amount of years of knowledge, that needs to be called upon when making decisions that affect matters in the field.”
The most successful organizations overcome leader blind spots and connect everyone to the mission. And, as a result, they see innovation levels take off. We found that when employees say their work has “special meaning,” rather than being “just a job,” they are 56% more likely to experience a lot of innovation opportunities. Similarly, when people feel they “make a difference” at work, they are 64% more likely to be engaged in high levels of innovation.
The Gospel of Good Food at Wegmans
In a previous blog post we shared the story of Jody Wood, who helped bring cauliflower rice to Wegmans. It’s clear that she, and Wegmans, soar right over the purpose gap. For Wood, the grocery chain’s mantra of serving customers and helping them live healthier lives is like manna from heaven. She eats it up, even as she helps others cook up new vegetarian dishes.
She explains, “The customers are just really happy. I have them come back all the time and tell me they tried something new with their family and their family absolutely loved it, and they’re making it every week and they thank me, and it’s very satisfying because I absolutely love to help people.”
In fact, Wood sees her work at Wegmans as a kind of ministry. Prior to coming to the store, she earned a master’s degree at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. She didn’t pursue a traditional chaplain job but sees spreading the gospel of good food in the same light. “I feel like I’m doing chaplaincy,” she says. “Not with the Bible and God. I’m serving the needs of others by helping them become healthy.”
As this comment suggests, purpose is palpable from the Wegmans C-suite to the meal station at which Jody Wood works. And because meaning is shared equally, Wood and Wegmans were able to bring a powerful new product to the company and its customers.
For more, read the whole story in our paper, The Five Hidden Barriers of Innovation.
Ed Frauenheim is Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work®. He provides insights and shares stories about how great workplaces are better for business, better for people and better for the world. He has spoken at numerous events, published articles in Fortune, Wired and Inc. and co-written three books, including A Great Place to Work For All.