Getting the Most Out of Your Mission: Organizational Missions as a Key to Employee Engagement

Article and Author Information

Carrie Gibson (MSLOC 2013) wrote this article in March 2013 for the Capstone 3 Research Analysis and Interpretation course. This executive summary is the culmination of a nine-month capstone research project. Carrie is an HR Specialist at Motorola Solutions where she leads initiatives to drive strategic change within the organization's HR department.  She is a dedicated OD practitioner and she has a passion for helping organizations succeed by leveraging the talent of their workforce.

Abstract

While most organizations have formally established missions, very little is known about how these missions actually impact employees. Academic literature on organizational missions and employee engagement suggests that there may be a link between these subjects but that concept has yet to be examined. This study tests that concept and the impact organizational missions have on employees by investigating whether missions are associated with a key condition of employee engagement. In an online survey of 345 individuals, the relationships between organizational missions and two primary variables associated with employee engagement are explored. The results reveal that while organizational missions are strongly correlated with the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement, it is an employee's belief that her work contributes to fulfilling the mission of her organization that has the greatest correlation with the meaningfulness condition of her engagement.

Introduction

In the war to retain top talent and boost organizational profits, employee engagement is key. Studies show that highly engaged employees are eighty-seven percent less likely to leave their companies than their less engaged colleagues (Corporate Leadership Council, 2004) and that organizations with highly engaged employees have twice the annual net income of companies with less engaged employees (Kenexa, 2012). Compelling statistics like these have left a number of organizations clamoring for strategies to increase engagement among their employees. Unfortunately, very little is known about the factors that actually influence employee engagement (Shuck & Wollard, 2010).

Figure 1

What if one of these factors was a tool that most organizations already had? Could one of the keys to increased engagement be within reach? Academic literature on organizational missions and employee engagement suggests that missions may provide a link to fostering engagement. Kahn’s (1990) groundbreaking study on the psychological conditions of employee engagement found that meaningfulness was one of the three psychological conditions of engagement. He defined it as a condition employees experience when they feel "worthwhile, useful and valuable" and he found that it was directly tied to employees’ perceptions of how valuable they were to their organizations (Kahn, 1990, p. 704). The literature on organizational missions suggests that missions can impact this perception of value by providing employees with a meaning of their existence. The authors who support this theory argue that organizational missions provide employees with a meaning of their existence and that this meaning enables employees to feel that they are worthwhile and valuable to their organizations (Campbell, 1989, 1993; Campbell et al., 1990; Drucker, 1974; Gould et al., 1989; Peters et al., 1982, Pearce II et al., 1987).

This study explores the connection between organizational missions and employee engagement by investigating whether there is a relationship between organizational missions, the meaning of employee existence, and the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement. In addition to this primary research question, this study also examines what impact organizational missions have on employees and what makes employees feel valuable to their organizations.

The results of this study have important implications for both academic theorists and the leaders of organizations. For both groups, they provide critical evidence of how organizational missions actually impact employees. Such evidence is noteworthy for academics who lack empirical data to support the claim that missions do benefit organizations. It is equally important for human resource and organizational leaders because it leads to a number of practical recommendations for how these leaders can make sure their missions have the greatest impact on their employees. More importantly, the results of this study produce new knowledge on the relationship between organizational missions and employee engagement. In doing so, they provide concrete evidence of an organizational tool which is linked to employee engagement and point leaders to a reliable and relatively simple strategy for increasing employee engagement.

Research Methodology

Study Design

In order to explore the relationship between organizational missions and employee engagement, an online survey was created. The survey was comprised of a number of closed and open ended questions. The closed questions were designed to measure the correlations between three primary variables: 1) organizational missions; 2) the meaning of employee existence; and 3) the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement, and four secondary variables: 1) mission familiarity; 2) mission agreement; 3) mission motivation; 4) mission contribution; and 5) personal meaningfulness. The survey's three open ended questions were designed to assess participants' understanding of their organizations' missions, the impact those missions had on them, and what made the participants feel valuable to their organizations.

Measures

Both the meaningfulness condition and personal meaningfulness were measured using scales adapted from May, Gilson, and Harter's (2004) scale of psychological meaningfulness. Since no previously validated measures existed for the other six variables, custom measures were created for these variables based on the literature on organizational missions, their purpose, and the presumed impact they have on employees.

Participants

The participants in this study were individuals employed in a variety of U.S. based organizations. They were recruited through email and social-media solicitations to my own and my colleagues' personal networks. Two small to medium (fifty to 500 employees) non-profit organizations and one global consulting firm with over 3,000 employees also helped to recruit participants by Figure 2 forwarding the survey to employees in their organizations. While there were no demographic requirements for participation, qualification was determined based on a respondent's familiarity with his organization's mission. Participants were required to rate their familiarity with their organization's mission on a sliding scale of one to ten with one to two representing not familiar and nine to ten representing very familiar. Those participants who selected any value less than two were deemed ineligible, thanked for their participation, and directed to the end of the survey.

Of the 415 individuals who responded to the survey, 345 individuals qualified to take it and chose to complete it. This final sample consisted of a diverse group of individuals who represented a variety of different industries, organizational departments, and lengths of employment.

Specific characteristics of the sample consisted of the following:

  • 48% worked in the For-Profit sector, 46% worked in the Non-Profit sector, and 6% were Unspecified
  • 12% worked for their current organization for less than one year, 34% worked for one to five years, 22% worked for six to ten years, 12% worked for eleven to fifteen years, 14% worked for more than fifteen years, and 6% were Unspecified
  • A variety of organizational departments were represented with 15% working in Human Resources, 12% working in Operations, 12% working in Senior Leadership and the remainder spread across a number of different departments

Data Analysis

The data that was collected from this survey was analyzed through a combined process of statistical analysis and thematic coding. Quantitative data was first analyzed to determine the reliability (alpha score of >.7) of variables with multi-item scales. Meaning of employee existence (.923), the meaningfulness condition (.949), and personal meaningfulness (.949) were all determined to be reliable measures, so mean scores were created for each of these variables. Correlation tests were then conducted to determine whether significant positive correlations existed between the three primary variables or between any of the primary or secondary variables. Finally, a number of T-tests were used to determine whether statistically significant differences existed between the mean scores of participants from non-profit and for-profit organizations or between participants from different organizational departments and different lengths of employment.

The qualitative data from the study was analyzed using thematic coding. A variety of thematic codes were created based on the responses to the last two open-ended questions. These codes were then assigned to the responses to these questions and their frequency was calculated to determine 1) what impact organizational missions had on participants and 2) what made participants feel valuable to their organizations. The first open-ended question, which asked participants to restate their organization's mission in their own words, was not included in the final data analysis because it was impossible to determine the accuracy of participants' responses without knowing the actual missions of their organizations.

Key Findings

Organizational Missions & the Meaningfulness Condition

Organizations have been using missions for years but what effect do these missions really have on employees? The results of this study show that there is a strong positive correlation between organizational missions and the meaning of employee existence (r= .777). What this means is that when organizations use missions, they provide their employees with a strong sense of purpose that creates meaning and justification for the work they do. This meaning of existence is in turn associated with the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement. The results show a significant positive correlation (r= .499) Figure 3 between participants' meaning of existence and the meaningfulness condition of their engagement. When individuals believe that there is a meaning for their work and existence as employees, they therefore experience one of the three main conditions of employee engagement and feel that they are worthwhile, valuable, and useful to their organization. The positive relationships between these variables show that there is a strong connection between organizational missions and the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement.

The Contribution Factor

While missions are connected to the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement, it is an individual's belief that his work contributes to fulfilling that mission which has the greatest relationship with his sense of meaningfulness. The strongest correlation in the study was between mission contribution and the meaningfulness condition (r= .811), indicating that employees experience the greatest sense of value and worth to their organization when they believe that the work they do contributes to achieving the mission of their organization. This finding shows how missions become actualized through employee work and how that process is tied to higher levels of the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement.

The qualitative results of the study provide additional support for this finding. Although participants stated that a number of factors made them feel valuable to their organizations, the specific contributions their job tasks (30.9%) or role (18.9%) made to the larger goals of their organizations were the most frequently cited factors.

How Missions Really Impact Employees

The results of this study do validate the claim that organizational missions positively impact employees; however, they show that missions impact employees in a variety of ways. Of the 298 participants who responded to what impact their organizations' missions had on them, only 8.4% stated that their missions had no impact on them. The 91.6% of participants who did feel a sense of impact listed a total of nineteen different ways in which their organizations' missions positively impacted them. Among the most frequently cited benefits of missions were their ability to provide individuals with:

Figure 4

Alignment with Personal Values:

  • "My own personal mission is aligned with that of my employer's mission. This helps me stay engaged in day-to-day activities."
  • "It is a reflection of my values as well."

Overall Guidance:

  • "The mission provides guidance and clarity about the tasks I complete on a daily basis."
  • "It gives me a fundamental direction to follow and a philosophy to the work I do with the employees. It helps remind me to stay focused on the bigger picture, which is my organization's health."

Meaning of Employee Existence:

  • "The mission of the organization constantly reminds me why I do the work I do. It provides meaning to what I do."
  • "It allows me to feel that I'm contributing meaningfully to the achievement of the goals."

Motivation:

  • "It gives me a reason to go to work in the morning and to do the best I can while I am there."
  • "Our mission is what motivates me, especially during the more difficult times, either personally or professionally."

What is important to note, is that these responses were provided from employees who worked in a variety of different departments for both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Organizational missions therefore provide a number of benefits that are able to positively impact diverse groups of employees.

Industry Matters

While significant differences did not emerge in the multiple ways employees from for-profit and non-profit organizations were impacted by their organizations' missions, they did emerge in the level of impact those missions had on them. The primary differences that existed between respondents from for-profit and non-profit organizations were in their familiarity with their organizations' missions (for-profit M=8.6168, non-profit M=9.1329 on a ten point scale), their sense of contribution to these missions (for-profit M=4.31, non-profit M=4.54 on a five point scale), and how motivated they were by these missions (for-profit M=4.17, non-profit M=4.39 on a five point scale). Analyses of the means of each of these variables revealed statistically significant differences (p <.05) between how much more familiar and motivated non-profit employees were by their organizations' missions and how much more they believed their work contributed to fulfilling those missions. Participants from non-profit organizations also had a relatively higher correlation (for-profit r=.391, non-profit r=.519) between the meaning of their existence as employees and the meaningfulness condition of their engagement.

Figure 5

But Department Matters More

The greatest differences however emerged between participants who worked in human resources, operations, and senior leadership. On average, participants who held roles as senior leaders had significantly higher scores (p <.05) than human resource and operations employees in their belief that they contribute to fulfilling the missions of their organizations and in the meaningfulness condition of their engagement. Senior leaders also scored significantly higher (p <.05) than individuals in operations in both their agreement with the missions of their organizations and the extent to which these missions motivate them. Given that senior leaders sit at the top level of organizations and have roles which are often central to the mission, these results could indicate that an employee's level and proximity to the mission could impact his relationship with that mission. Future research is needed however to support that claim.

Limitations

Despite such significant findings, this study does have some limitations. The primary limitation is the sample itself. Because participants worked at a variety of different organizations, they were not responding to questions based on the same organizational mission. This limitation made it impossible to assess the strength of each mission and to evaluate whether participants had accurate understandings of their organizations' missions. While participants were assessed on the level of their familiarity with their organizations' missions this measure was not enough to calibrate the level of exposure and understanding they had of these missions.

A second limitation is the level of analysis that was conducted. The relationships between variables were only measured as correlations, so causation cannot be determined. What this means is that while organizational missions are associated with the meaning of employee existence and that meaning is associated with the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement, this study cannot conclude whether missions create the meaning of employee existence and whether that meaning influences the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement.

Interpretations & Recommendations

So what exactly do the findings from this study mean? For academics, organizational leaders, and human resource professionals, these findings lead to three important conclusions and practical implications.

Organizational Missions do Benefit Employees

Both the academic and practitioner literature on organizational missions have long held that the three principal benefits of missions are employee motivation, direction for employee action, and meaning of existence for organizational members (Bart & Baetz, 1998). The results of this study confirm that organizational missions do positively impact employees in these ways; however, they also provide a number of additional benefits which employees find rewarding. For academics, this conclusion validates what organizational mission theorists have always speculated and it provides support for the claim that missions actually do benefit organizations.

Figure 6

This conclusion has equally important implications for the leaders who create organizational missions. What it shows is that their work is not in vain. Employees do pay attention to the missions these individuals create and they receive a number of benefits from them. More importantly, this conclusion also suggests that organizational missions can be used as tools to foster motivation, a sense of purpose, and strategic alignment among employees. For leaders and human resource professionals who are trying to enhance these factors within their organizations, missions offer both a reliable and relatively easy lever to pull.

Missions are a Key to the Meaningfulness Condition of Employee Engagement

While academic literature suggests that there is a link between organizational missions and employee engagement, the findings from this study provide concrete evidence that organizational missions are positively associated with the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement. What this conclusion means is that the use of organizational missions is connected to one of the three psychological conditions of employee engagement (Kahn 1990). Within the field of employee engagement, this conclusion helps to advance critical knowledge on the organizational factors which are associated with employee engagement. For organizational leaders and the consultants who advise them, it indicates that one of the ways employees experience engagement is through the use of organizational missions. This conclusion is significant given that the lack of empirical research on employee engagement has led most organizations to develop strategies for increasing engagement based solely on opinion (Shuck & Wollard, 2010). The findings from this study limit the need for an opinion based approach by providing empirical evidence for an organizational tool that is linked to one of the three conditions of employee engagement.

Figure 7

Contribution to the Mission is Critical

The most important conclusion from this study is that employee contribution to the mission is critical to the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement. While the use of missions themselves is linked to the meaningfulness condition, it is an employee's belief that her work contributes to achieving that mission which has the greatest correlation with the meaningfulness condition of her engagement. This conclusion highlights the pivotal role that contribution to a mission plays in an employee's engagement and sense of value. For academics, it produces new knowledge on a key factor related to employee engagement. For human resource professionals and the leaders of organizations, it offers an important insight into how employees derive their sense of value and overall engagement. Individuals in these roles who are trying to increase the engagement of their employees, should note that highlighting the ways in which their employees work to fulfill the mission of their organization provides an easy and reliable way to foster engagement.

Areas for Additional Research

While this study produced a number of important conclusions, it also raises some new questions that future research should explore.

  • Because the participants in this study worked at a variety of different organizations, research is needed to determine how employees from the same organization are impacted by that organization's mission. Research in this area could begin to explore whether the strength of an organization's mission has any influence on how meaningful it is to employees and whether or not that strength is associated with the level of employees' engagement.
  • The differences that emerged between employees from non-profit versus for-profit organizations and those in senior leadership versus human resources and operations, speak to the need to understand what fosters different levels of mission motivation, contribution, and the meaningfulness condition of engagement among these groups. Greater knowledge in this area could lead to the development of best practices which enhance mission motivation, contribution, and engagement among all employees.
  • The role mission contribution plays in employee engagement also deserves additional attention. Given the significance this factor has to the meaningfulness condition of employee engagement, future research should examine which methods are most effective for helping employees understand the contribution their work makes to fulfilling the mission of their organization.
  • Finally, a number of participants stated that they chose to work for their organization based on its mission. This presents an interesting opportunity for future research to explore whether individuals who select organizations based on their missions have higher levels of engagement.

Some Final Advice on Best Practices

For leaders and human resource professionals who want their organizations' missions to have the greatest impact on the engagement of their employees, the results of this study lead to three important best practices.

  • The mission should be publicized throughout the organization. Employees need to have a high level of familiarity with their organization's mission in order for it to impact them. Internal marketing strategies should be used to make sure all employees know and understand the mission of their organization.
  • Every employee should know how his work contributes to fulfilling the mission. Employees derive their greatest sense of value from believing the work they do helps to accomplish the mission of their organization. Whether this is achieved through a formal organization-wide campaign or more individualized conversations between employees and their managers, employees need to know that their work makes a difference.
  • The mission, and the work employees do to achieve it, should be celebrated. Leaders took the time to create the mission of their organization and employees work every day to fulfill it, neither of these efforts should be ignored. Organizations should celebrate them by making sure that their mission is recognized as the driving force behind their organization's achievements and that employees throughout the organization are regularly lauded for contributing to the fulfillment of the mission.

References

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  • Campbell, A. (1989). Does your organization need a mission? Leadership and Organization Development, 3.
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  • Corporate Leadership Council. (2004). Driving performance and retention through employee engagement. Washington, DC: Corporate Executive Board.
  • Drucker, P. (1974). Management: Tasks, responsibilities and practices. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Gould, M., & Campbell, A. (1989). Strategies and styles: The roles of the centre in managing diverse corporations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33(4), 692-724. doi:10.2307/256287
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  • May, D. R., Gilson, R. L., & Harter, L. M. (2004). The psychological conditions of meaningfulness, safety and availability and the engagement of the human spirit at work. Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 77(1), 11-37.
  • Pearce II, J. A., & David, F. (1987). Corporate mission statements: The bottom line. Academy of Management Executive, (2), 109-115. doi:10.5465/AME.1987.4275821
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Appendices

Appendix B
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