If you’re measuring employee engagement and performance by productivity and output, you may not have an accurate picture of your employees’ desire to stay put and plugged in. With the quit rate at all-time highs, a better way to gauge employee satisfaction is to look at a net purpose score, says Michael Schrage, a visiting research fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.
As part of an MIT Sloan Management Review research initiative, Schrage surveyed nearly 4,300 global leaders and conducted executive interviews to explore shifting attitudes about leadership during challenging times. The findings became the report entitled, “Leadership’s Digital Transformation: Leading Purposefully in an Era of Context Collapse.”
“Our original hypothesis was that leadership in a digital age would increasingly be managing cyborgs—people who are increasingly dependent upon smarter technology for their productivity,” says Schrage. “As the research went on and the pandemic happened, it became clear that we had to pay attention to all dimensions of the employee experience. During the beginning of the pandemic, organizations saw a burst of productivity, but more than a year later, that productivity is turning into attrition. We had to think about people’s emotional, mental, and purposeful well-being.”
The Importance of Purpose
Net purpose score is based off the net promoter score premise, which asks whether you’d recommend a product or be a product champion. The net purpose score asks if an employee would be an advocate for the organization.
“Do they feel like the organization stands for something?” says Schrage. “Do they feel like the organization reflects and honors the principles and purposes for which it says? And would they recommend somebody coming on board? People want more than a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work; they want to find alignment with purpose.”
Leaders have a direct impact on their organization’s net purpose score. “The pandemic forced certain kinds of leaders to step up or step away,” says Schrage. “Legacy leadership championed digital agility and productivity at the expense of enterprise values and purpose. People needed something more than creating more profitability or more efficiencies. They need to feel good about who they are and what they’re doing.”
Leading employees during a digital age requires recognizing the person as a whole. “It used to be people would be annoyed with you if they could hear your kids in the background,” says Schrage. “Somebody was ‘unprofessional’ if they couldn’t segment their personal or professional lives. Now we have no choice. So how do leaders provide 360 degrees of support in that regard? People want more meaning in their lives, and that brings us to the net purpose.”
Boosting Your Net Purpose Score
In his work with executives, Schrage asks, “How do you lead by digital example?”
“Too often there’s a disconnect between words and actions,” he says. “When you ask direct reports, ‘How does your boss lead by example?’ it’s remarkable the divergence that you get in the perception.”
Leaders should examine how they’re participating on those Zoom and Teams calls and what their background looks like. They need to be mindful of making comments on internal chat platforms. And they need to listen to people on their team.
“If you’re telling people they must be more data driven and digital, your behavior should reflect not only what you say but what you do,” says Schrage.
Setting a good digital example, however, can be more difficult due to “context collapse,” which Schrage describes as an inability to segment audiences and manage different identities. Social media forces transparency and openness. From tweets to emails, a leader’s forms of communication can easily be shared with employees and customers. They can also easily go viral. Since today’s leaders are more visible and vulnerable, they need to be intentional with their messages and actions.
The net purpose score provides a better assessment of how an organization and its leaders are perceived. Low scores can provide insights that can help leaders change behaviors to navigate the future.
“It’s a cliché now that the pandemic accelerated digital transformation roadmaps by years,” he says. “But in terms of leaders of organizations, the classic model of overseeing digital transformation is foolish and flawed. What we discovered is that digital transformation transformed leaders as much as it had to transform the organization. You couldn’t oversee that digital transformation and simply be who you are. You had to transform, too.”