social purpose lurking behind the profit motive


Many years ago I was going through a supermarket checkout with a mate. The checkout operator was looking particularly robotic and glum. Mischievously my mate looked her in the eye and asked, “do you like your job?”.

Our modern economy is a massive and complex machine, servicing the needs and wants of our consumerism. The range of jobs needing to be done are as varied as the needs and wants of all of us who are looking to participating.  Most people either fantasise about a better job, or have made peace with work as drudgery, the necessary evil to permit other things in life.

Most discussions of meaningful work are about the nature of the job and its tasks. When the task involves ‘shovelling shit’, then it typically follows that the job is lower on the ‘dream job hierarchy’. Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing, about electrical superstore workers’ fantasising about the rock stars and their lifestyle is an iconic representation of the way the conversation typically goes.

But there is another way to frame the discussion that I think is more helpful. The feeling of meaninglessness comes not only from the nature of the tasks, but from a disconnection from the nature of the positive contribution the company is seeking to make to society. Now, of course a major problem is that company Boards and operational leaders commonly have lost sight of how their business’ products and services are designed to make life better for people. (Except when it comes to marketing spin.) If the overt and felt purpose of a company is simply to maximise shareholder profit, it is no wonder that workers are referred to simply as ‘human resources’ and feel like cogs in a machine.

In recent years, enlightened organisations have begun to address the ‘mechanistic’ approach of traditional management methods in favour of more people oriented policies and practices. This is a major step forward. Paid maternity leave, flexible work hours, location agnosticism, humane workspaces and the like are considered par for the course these days. But it is not enough, these are ultimately balancing or corrective responses to a more fundamental problem.

Business leaders must recapture the social purpose of their business and put it at the core of their strategy. Telecommunications IS about connecting people. Insurance, banking and other financial services ARE community solidarity on a large scale. Plumbing IS about hygiene, convenience and water harvesting. (Super) markets ARE about a supply chain connecting growers and producers to their communities. The list is endless. Almost every company I can think of has a great social purpose lurking behind the profit motive.

When employees of a business understand and are recruited to the social purpose of their company and their daily work is routinely connected by leadership to overarching social, environmental and economic objectives, there is a greater chance employees will understand their work as meaningful. And productivity improves to boot!