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Six ways to connect your team to purpose.


LAST UPDATED: November 2, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Low employee engagement results in a loss of creativity and productivity.
  • It is critical to define a clear purpose for the team and to remind employees of it on a regular basis.
  • Consistently link actions to mission-supporting outcomes.
  • By asking the right questions, leaders can better understand why their team is disconnected or distracted.

Design leaders today face a hidden risk that can have a huge impact on their success: low staff engagement. Low staff engagement leads to a loss of creativity and productivity.

For leaders trying to do more with less, the focus must be on “getting the work done,” but employees need more than just a project to work on. They need to feel connected to a purpose larger than their next paycheck, or they'll start looking for a new place to get that check.

Our InsideOut Design Leader Community tackled the challenge of Connecting Teams with Purpose during roundtables in LA, SF, and Chicago and shared ways they are bringing staff along on their journey to what's next.

First, define your purpose

Some industries have a clear path to purpose, like healthcare or other essential businesses where products and services are literally saving lives. But many organizations struggle to articulate their value. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

One leader suggested that no matter the industry, there's no better time than the present to build a clear case for “This is Who We Are and Why We're Here.” After a team discussion, they documented and made visible a written purpose to remind staff of their value.

The mission statement of the company can be a timely and relevant touchpoint, or, if more compelling, the immediate purpose of their daily work can inspire and engage. Looking back at company history can also be a great way to show what's possible.

Another leader pointed out that if the company is financially struggling, they should be transparent and bring staff into the fold. If the highest purpose is to help as many customers as possible in order to stay in business, well, that's a pretty powerful reason for staff to give their best. But if you leave your employees out of that discussion, you risk them feeling powerless and afraid.

Tell the story, then tell it again

The best leaders are great storytellers, so defining a purpose might be the easy part. That said, some assume that once the story has been told, engaged teams will stay engaged. One design leader cautions against relying on memory to provide direction and reassurance.

To keep the mission front and centre, this leader created a living document that outlines their team's vision, which they update and share on a regular basis in an interactive forum. Most leaders are hosting more meetings than ever with teams and partners, so taking the time to share not just the “what” but also the “why” delivers true engagement.

Focus on impact

Once your team is clear on its purpose, it's time to tie their actions as directly as possible to the outcomes that support that mission. One experienced leader uses their companywide quarterly financial results report to communicate the impact to their employees. Leaders can demonstrate to employees how important their work is by pointing out that the successful completion of “Project X” supported “Company Initiative X.”

Taking that approach a step further, the same leader incorporates purpose into their monthly staff recognition. Creating peer awards to recognize skills that contribute to the company's focus. If the company mission includes “help solve problems,” then asking your team to identify peers who are exhibiting that behavior is a great way to reinforce it. By rallying around the mantra “How can I be of help?” a design leader realized a $30,000 savings when their staff came up with a way to remotely assess and eliminate unused inventory.

Look outside, not in

Companies are always embracing customer-centric business practices, but during a stressful time, it's human nature to go into protection mode and focus inside. Employees under pressure to perform who are surrounded by uncertainty can lose sight of the customer and undermine efforts to shift the business to meet new customer needs.

One UX leader paints a relatable picture for their teams by pointing out that their work on improving the user experience enables customers to order essential items. With the surge of new digital users, UX talent can make the difference between revenue and abandoned carts. Remind them of that.

Another leader helped their staff look inside to understand why they were more concerned with getting the best projects than giving the best customer service. Using self-assessments and bringing in a professional coach, they created space for their employees to refocus their efforts on their most important audience.

Trust your staff

Many remote leaders struggle with the lack of visibility that comes with dispersed resources. Compound that with accelerated deadlines and unpredictable workloads, and it's no surprise that leaders spend more time following up and less time giving space to work.

Focusing on goals instead of tactics can help build empowered teams that make better decisions and come up with creative solutions. Several leaders have drawn a clear line between what success looks like for staff, team, department, and company goals. Another leader developed a “People Committee” to allow their team to devise their own plan for team-building.

Trust could be the topic of an entire article, but here are a few tips to make this work for you:

  • Set clear individual goals that align with company initiatives and manage those.
  • Find what motivates your team and realize there's not a one-size-fits-all solution.
  • Be transparent and authentic; acknowledge that everyone's help is needed to find the best solutions.

Ask why

If all else fails, go back to the beginning. When leaders sense that their team is disconnected or distracted, it's important to understand why before simply deploying new methods to engage them.

One leader suggested asking the right question first to get to the bottom of the problem: Is the problem that teams do not have a purpose, that they do but are not sold on it, or that the leader is simply struggling to articulate it? Each of these problems leads to a different set of solutions, but shooting in the dark can waste time and cause frustration.

Connecting teams to a purpose can generate better results and improve the retention of both staff and customers. When choosing an employer, employees look for a place where they can make a difference and feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. Design leaders can help by creating conditions that bring out the best in their teams and making purpose a part of their daily interactions.