[This article was originally published on Forbes]
It’s easy to vilify business. Sadly, we’re usually justified in these feelings, too. For many reasons, over the past decades business folks have gotten the idea that it’s OK to screw over their employees, foul up the environment, and treat customers like garbage. But all these antics are covering up another (here’s the other I recently wrote about) dirty secret of work:
Almost all businesses that exist today have a completely moral—even good—center.
A business exists because, at least at some point, usually somewhere towards its inception, it served some need the world required. It filled a hole that needed filling. People spent money on “X” because it was somehow helpful to them. It provided a product or service they wanted so much they were willing to part with their hard-earned greenbacks to get it.
Back then, in those days, it wasn’t “your crappy job.” It was a place that made people’s lives easier. Or helped them do something better. Or allowed them to create more meaning in their worlds or have more fun outside of work or get to the store faster or get some exercise or, or, or…
There are a million ways for a business to help people. And almost every business that exists now, at one point, clearly understood that helping people—i.e., doing something that creates value for society—was why everyone who worked there had jobs in the first place.
But many of our organizations forget this.
One of my very first consulting clients was to work with a company who makes the rounded ends of propane tanks. You know those white cylindrical tanks you see behind barns in Middle America? Well, this business the ends. Not the whole tank, mind you, just the ends (which is a much more lucrative business than you might think). This organization is a pillar of the community, and wanted to be an even greater place to work than it already was. We had the pleasure to work with this company on designing a great company culture, and one part of our project was to help them measure and improve employee engagement.
One day during a discussion with the executive team, we spoke about one of the crucial ingredients for engagement: something we call “impact.” Research is very clear that when a person works for an organization, they want to feel like the work they’re doing has an influence on something bigger, and this is what “impact” is about. During the session, we asked this group of very smart and accomplished folks a simple question:
“Why do you do what you do?”
The first answers were predictable:
“To grow the company.”
“To make money.”
“No and no,” we said. “Let us repeat the question: WHY do you do what you do?”
“To keep our jobs.”
“To help the family who owns the business.”
“No, you’re not there yet. WHY do you do what you do?”
The group was quiet for a long, awkward moment. We let the question hang in the air.
Finally, one of the guys who had worked there for literally decades spoke up:
“You know, it gets pretty cold here in the winter. And lots of people count on our tanks to heat their homes. I think we do this so families can stay warm and have a nice place to live.”
“YES. That is why you do what you do.”
Almost all companies have a true “WHY”—a moral center. We’ve just let ourselves forget what it is.
Many of the people within our organizations will have forgotten the WHY, too, and here’s the really hard part: they will keep forgetting. For most companies, the core of their work truly is GOOD and the world needs it. But someone needs to remind the employees of this, because in the rush of hectic day-to-day work everyone will keep forgetting.
Zig Ziglar once said: “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing; that’s why we recommend it daily.”
Chances are your organization, whatever it is and whatever it does, has a moral center. It might be buried deep, rusted out, thoroughly ignored, paved over, covered in dust, or just forgotten, but it’s almost certainly there.
It would be good for your whole organization if you were to dig it up and start reminding people. Preferably daily.