People want purpose – and internal communicators can help

Picture this. It’s pre-pandemic and I’m sat in a room with a senior leader. They want to communicate something to employees and it’s my job to help them. My advice is to explain why we’re communicating – what’s the purpose and why should people care?

In summary, the conversation would have gone something like this:

Me: We need to explain to people why this is important.

Leader: Why? I just want to tell people what they need to know.

Me: I know. But we want them to DO something as well. And people only do things if they believe in them. So, it’s worth reminding them why its important.

Leaders: OK. But can we keep that part small and make the plan of action really big?

That was before. The difference now is that over the last two years there’s been a monumental shift in power towards employees. People want remarkably different things from their work (and lives) than they did not so long ago.

They’re also spoiled for choice, as vacancies are flooding the job market.

People want purpose and meaning. They want to know why their work matters. And leaders want to know how to convey this. As communicators we have some work to do.

New careers

The BBC have shared many stories of people moving to ‘responsible’ careers, even accepting financial hardship along the way. And a 2021 Escape the City report found that 89% of people now want a career with a clear sense of purpose, up from 71% in 2015.

Much has been said about the ‘great resignation’, but actually the CIPD has found stronger evidence for the ‘great rethink’; that is, people reconsidering the role that work plays in their lives.

Communicating with purpose

“What counts is how you make people feel, not how much you pay them,” said one HR leader in the CIPD report.

It will take a new kind of leadership to prove to people that an organisation is worth believing in, and that will require the help of communication experts.

Insight – Mindsets are shifting. Leaders are starting to see their actions through the eyes of their employees. Employees are starting to ask more of their employers. Internal communicators can help to connect the dots by crystallising what employees want through two-way communication, solid evidence and insight.

Belief and empowerment – If leaders are dealing with a lot of uncertainty and unanswered questions themselves, it can be tricky to instil belief in others. However, by acknowledging that some of the answers will need to be discovered collaboratively, and remaining committed to the overall strategic direction, they show a vulnerability which gives people permission to come forward and co-create. It takes courage but gives employees a clear sense of their role and purpose.

Messaging and tone – Consistency is key. People will see through you if what you say isn’t authentic. A core narrative or message house that shows what you value and why will help to ensure everyone is ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. Recently, BP announced they were moving away from their relationship with a Russian firm. In the announcement, BP CEO Bernard Looney said: “I hope what you see… goes some way to addressing any questions you may have been having about who we are as a company.” He could have shared the news without saying this, but by saying it he’s intentionally made a statement about BP’s purpose and values.

Internal and external alignment – The employer brand must reflect what’s happening on the inside, and vice versa. This is why so many organisations are creating or re-creating their employee value propositions (EVPs) at the moment. It’s important to know what promises you’re making to employees and that you keep them. This is where internal communications, external communications and HR are starting to collaborate much more now, to help leaders do a great job of this.

Clarity and trust – Keeping things simple takes bravery. By sticking with the messages that are most important to the audience (based on insight), organisations build understanding which leads to trust and loyalty. This is what people are looking for – an employer they can believe in.

Maybe it’s time for a rethink. What is your organisation’s offering to its people, to the community and to the world? Why should people believe in it? What will they get out of it?

Build a story, create a strategy to deliver it and use insight to ensure it works for people. Ultimately, if your people (potential and existing) don’t see why the work you do matters, you may struggle to attract and retain the team you need.

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