What a NASA janitor can teach businesses about employee engagement

What a NASA janitor can teach businesses about employee engagement

Recently, I was reading a Deloitte study of organizations with a highly-engaged workforce. And I was struck by a story they told. It is an incredible showcase for the power of an organization’s purpose.

It’s the story of a janitor. A janitor who happen to work at NASA.

In the study, researchers found that companies with highly-engaged employees emphasize a core purpose that does not entail mere financial or operational goals. Rather, these businesses create a common understanding among employees that each person plays a role in creating value for the entire ecosystem of the business.

Back to the janitor.

Deloitte tells a story about an employee at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). During the space race, a group of reporters are waiting to interview some key NASA officials. They see a janitor walking toward them broom in hand, and figured why not get some B footage for video filler while they were waiting?

So microphone and camera ready, one of the reporters stops the janitor and asks. “So what’s your job at NASA?”

The janitor looked straight at the camera and said “It’s my job to help put a man on the moon.”

This is remarkable.

What a NASA janitor can teach us about employee engagement. #employee #engagement

People want to know that their work matters

Now ask yourself: What would our company be like if every person that worked for us had the same unshakable conviction in our core purpose as that NASA janitor?

People – at all levels – fundamentally want to know that what they are doing serves a greater purpose.

A deeply held sense of purpose leads to excellence. Every human being wants to know that they are making a difference and working toward something more than “the daily grind.” This is what leads to a higher level of employee engagement.

Leaders at NASA get this. Their employee’s comment shows how deeply this commitment runs throughout the organization, with every person at NASA knowing that they are contributing to a greater purpose.

Unsurprisingly, NASA has ranked number one in Best Places to Work in the Federal Government for multiple years.

Meaning drives engagement

Employees at every level of your company must know that at the heart of what they do each and every day is something that is meaningful. Every day they come to work, they crave a reason for why they are at their job. People fundamentally want to know that what they are doing serves a greater purpose.

Of course, your team knows that their day-to-day responsibilities boil down to tangible, tactical, productive work. But when they know that their daily work is part of the bigger mission, they are more driven to show up every day on time and do their job well.

As a whole, a well-communicated core purpose results in a workforce that is more engaged. Engaged employees work with passion and they feel a profound connection to their company. They cooperate to build a company and they create new customers.

A clear understanding of how a person’s job contributes to their company’s reason for being is a powerful form of emotional compensation. It, quite simply, is more thrilling to share a common purpose than complete a job.

What is a core purpose?

A core purpose is bigger than a charismatic leader, product, service, team, or technology.

As Simon Sinek says in his book, Start with Why, it’s the idea of who you are as a company and why you exist. As such, an organization’s core purpose has to be completely idealistic.

Your ability to prosper as a company is not about what you sell, it’s about what you believe. And it should drive everything you do.

Jim Collins and Jerry Poras, authors of the innovative business classic, Built to Last, describe a core purpose as an “organization’s fundamental reason for being. An effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the company’s work—it taps their idealistic motivations—and gets at the deeper reasons for an organization’s existence beyond just making money.”

Unfortunately, too many companies fail to capture this concept. Instead, they end up with uninspiring, cliché mission statements that are neither motivating nor memorable. These businesses are often driven solely by profit and performance, which in today’s rapidly evolving marketplace isn’t sustainable.

The whole point of your core purpose is to motivate and lead your people. It’s the glue that holds your company together as it grows, expands, and diversifies. Employees at every level of your company must know that at the heart of what they do is something meaningful that continuously anchors their daily activities.

How do you identify your core purpose?

Collins identifies five important characteristics of a company’s core purpose:

  1. It’s inspiring to those inside the company.
  2. It’s something that’s as valid 100 years from now as it is today.
  3. It should help you think expansively about what you could do but aren’t doing.
  4. It should help you decide what not to do.
  5. It’s truly authentic to your company.

Not sure where to start? Here are some questions that can help you determine your core purpose:

  • Why does our organization’s existence matter?
  •  What is our most important reason for being here? Why?
  • What would be lost if this organization ceased to exist?
  • Why are we important to the people we serve?
  • Why would anyone dedicate their precious time, energy, and passion to our company? (Note: the answer is not money.)
How to find your company's core purpose

Defining your core purpose is all about clarity, authenticity, and alignment. This means that you do not have to sound “sexy.” This is not something that has to sound impressive on a billboard. It does, however, have to feel meaningful to your leaders and to the people in your company. You’ll know when you finally identify your core purpose because it will be accompanied by a strong sense of conviction. Your team will feel a deep, resounding “yes!” when it is uncovered.

Knowing your core purpose will heighten employee and customer engagement. It will create and inspire enthusiastic advocates who are personally invested in your company’s success. Like the janitor who worked at NASA to put a man on the moon, your core purpose will provide your people to aspire to excellence in everything they do at your organization.