Responsive Orgs: Lens 4 – Trust

Posted on Tuesday, May 5th, 2020 at 5:55 PM    

The 4th layer of our Model for Responsiveness is Trust. The culminating lens or layer of organizations who are, by their developed nature, more responsive to both external threats and opportunities, is trust. Trust only happens in organizations when all of the previous lenses are in place.

Instinctively, we know that organizations that are responsive must also develop a tremendous amount of trust:employee with employee, employee with manager, manager with employee, and everyone with the organization and its goals. Our research identified three distinct areas responsive organizations address, as shown in the graphic below.


Responsive Orgs: Lens 3 – Transparency & Growth

Posted on Friday, April 24th, 2020 at 8:09 PM    

The third layer of our Model for Responsiveness is Transparency & Growth. Our interviews, roundtables, and data all suggest that organizations which provide a high level of transparency and enable employees to be continuously working and growing are in a better position to respond to both threats and opportunities.

Figure 1: A Model for Responsivity | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

Transparency & growth?

While we were initially surprised that the concepts of transparency and growth fell together, the more we have spoken with leaders, the more this makes sense. Organizations with a propensity toward transparency also tend to have a propensity toward allowing growth.

When a lot of the literature talks about transparency within organizations, the conversation focuses heavily on ensuring that information from the top leaders (strategy, vision, mission, direction etc.) is understood and absorbed throughout the organization. However, transparency is bigger than just pushing information down. Organizations that focus on transparency are able to see what is happening in different functions and at different levels, and better coordinate efforts.

And transparency breeds growth. With more access to information and more line of sight to different initiatives, employees grow. Responsive organizations augment the growth stuff that naturally occurs as a part of doing work with really clear information on performance and expectations, opportunities to understand skills gaps, and access to resources.

Our data identified 3 areas important to transparency and growth.

Figure 2: Behaviors Affecting Transparency & Growth | Source: RedThread Research, 2020. 

As with other roundtables, we had really insightful discussions on each of the 3 areas, especially in light of the struggles many leaders and L&D functions are facing right now. We have summarized the major points of that discussion in two ways:

  • Mindmap. Click the window and use your cursor to explore. It's almost like being there. This is a live document, so if you have additional thoughts, please feel free to ping us with a comment or send a note to [email protected]
  • Main points & leader advice. The choice morsels of the roundtable have also been summarized below, including short definitions and some of the really great advice we heard from leaders.

Transparency & growth mindmap

Main points & leader advice

In the following sections, we expound on these 3 areas and highlight the good advice we heard at the roundtable.

Transparent performance

Two of the areas identified by the research for the factor of Transparency & Growth dealt directly with performance. In recent years, Stacia and I have seen a convergence of the performance and learning & development space. We’re seeing this convergence in the way people functions are organizing, in the technology they use, and in the discussions they have. Why? Because it’s necessary to understand how someone performs in order to help them grow. Our research highlighted two specific areas of transparent performance.

First, data showed that Responsive Organizations do a better job at ensuring managers provide transparent guidance on performance. While many organizations wait until years’ end and rely on shady, opaque processes to share performance, Responsive Organizations are better at helping employees understand how they’re performing at all times.

Second, and more specifically, as organizations require more data that help them understand performance, many of them are pushing these insights to the individuals themselves. This has a few benefits. One, providing data often takes the difficulty out of sharing performance insights. Two, data can be shared more regularly and does not rely on manager ability and / or desire and / or time. And three, employees are the best situated and the most motivated to make use of that data to change what they’re doing.

Advice from leaders
  • Tighten up 1:1 schedules. Even before COVID, we heard leaders talk about the power (and underuse) of 1:1s. Now, leaders agreed that even the quarterly requirements some of them had in place was too long. Meet weekly. Maybe even daily.
  • Give employees responsibility. Many leaders mentioned that feedback on performance isn’t just the responsibility of managers. Employees need to be taught – and enabled – to ask for feedback. Teaching them that feedback is less scary when it’s solicited helps them feel empowered, and prompts leaders to do it.
  • Master the mention. Build a culture of feedback by not making it so heavy and formal. If you have feedback for an employee, jump on the phone and talk through it or mention it in passing. They’ll appreciate it and dread it a lot less than a scheduled ½ hour meeting to discuss how they screwed up.

Skills & growth resources

For many months now (24-36), we have been having regular conversations with smart people about the skills movement. Call it what you will (and we’ve heard Upskill, Reskill, Skilling 2.0, and Other-skill, just to name a few), the conversation was started with an understanding that the world of work is changing at an unprecedented rate.  As such, responsive organizations do what they can to understand the skills that exist in their organization and ensure that their workforce is continually developing new ones.

Advice from leaders:
  • Look for hidden or unstated skills. One leader said that he and his team, even before this crisis, made a point of spending time with people doing their jobs. This helped them to understand the skills that differentiated the high- and low-performers, and gave them direction on how to help develop for those jobs.
  • Quit operating off job descriptions. One leader mentioned that this was a fantastic time to stop making decisions about what someone could do off their job description. Asking for volunteers, making assignments based on observed skills, and even borrowing from other departments broadens the skills pool and allows employees to develop skills that they may not have.
  • Don’t regress in redesigning employee development. Leaders mentioned the need to think broader than content and the LMS, and to remember that work is different. Radically so. We have had to reimagine how we work. It follows that employee development opportunities will need to be rethought as well. Many leaders are using this opportunity to do completely different things. Some that leaders mentioned: skills and project marketplaces, book clubs, lunch and learns, user generated content and shares, etc.
  • Ask: "How and what have you learned in the last six weeks?" This is our favorite suggestion. Many leaders and L&D functions don’t know where to start rethinking learning. One leader suggested asking employees what they have learned in the last six weeks, and how they learned it. Even with the dearth of company resources and organized learning experiences, learning has continued. In fact, it has probably accelerated. Pay attention to patterns that are being used for learning in the absence of the formal and use the cues to design your future state.

Managers & leaders as enablers

A lot of the research we did last year pointed to the importance of leaders and particularly the frontline leaders or managers. Employees see leaders as either someone that can help them do their work or someone that will keep them from doing their work. Leaders in our roundtables had several pieces of advice for ensuring that they're helpful, not detrimental.

Advice from leaders:
  • Be human. Yes, hard information needs to be shared right now. But being vulnerable and real about what is going on as leaders share changes in direction is critical to gaining the trust and buy-in from employees. One leader said that she received an iPhone video from their CHRO, who had stopped by the office to pick something up. She reiterated how quiet the office was an how grateful she was that employees were home where it was safe.
  • Call out bad manager behavior. Leaders mentioned that traditional ways of thinking and bad habits may linger, even in this new environment and suggested calling it out. For example, one leader recounted that a leader in a virtual meeting said, “I hope you’re enjoying your vacation working from home.” Behavior like this is not just insensitive and damaging, it undermines larger changes the organization is trying to make. Call out bad behavior. Correct gently, but correct.
  • Lead. Now is not the time for a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude. Employees are looking for leadership and taking cues from what they see their leaders do. For example, if leaders send emails at 2am, the expectation that everyone works at 2am is set. Leaders need to set the tone. Hopefully a calm one. They also need to lead by example and model skills for managing people. If they don’t have them, now is an excellent time to develop them.

Responsive Orgs: Lens 2 – Distributed Authority

Posted on Saturday, April 18th, 2020 at 7:50 PM    

The second layer of our Model for Responsiveness is DISTRIBUTED AUTHORITY. Our research indicates that responsive organizations empower employees to make decisions affecting their work, which enables collaboration and effective responses to market needs.

In this roundtable, we gathered a diverse group of global leaders for a discussion around the second layer in the Responsive Organization model.

Figure 1: A Model for Responsivity | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

Distributed Authority happens when organizations change the way their authority structures work. Instead of holding decision-making centrally (as most organization in the last 100 years are apt to do), authority to make decisions is spread throughout the organization, in all functions, and in all levels. Responsive organizations understand that, in order to respond to external pressures, people at the edges of the organization are often better equipped to make educated decisions about how to get things done.

3 areas of distributed authority

Figure 2: Behaviors for Building Distributed Authority | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

Distributed authority mindmap

Distributed authority roundtable video recap

Roundtable summary & leader advice

In the following sections, we expound on these 3 areas and highlight the good advice we heard at the roundtable.

Decision-making rights

Decision-making rights is the control employees have about how they execute their role or their responsibilities. We found that decision-making rights vary greatly by organization, manager, level, and sometimes even industry.

Advice from leaders:
  • Defer to expertise, not title. During crisis, there is often an unconscious “because I said so” attitude from managers. We get it. Lots of people feel powerless and are looking to salvage some sense of order. However, one of the best pieces of advice shared was that organizations should default to expertise, not title. Let the person with the most information make the decision on the thing.
  • Implement decision-making logs. One leader said that her senior leaders (C-suite) had instituted a process wherein they published the decisions they made and the reasons for those decisions. We like this idea for a couple of reasons. First, it establishes a level of transparency that we think is healthy during a crisis and helps everyone become comfortable with those decisions. Secondly, it’s an excellent learning tool. Not only are the decisions public, but the reasons why those decisions were made are also public, teaching employees the subtle art of decision-making.
  • Throw out the 9-5. We have mentioned this in previous roundtable readouts, but it bears repeating. The world has gone mad. Employees are dealing with children and/or parents, lack of schedule, feelings of isolation, and a host of other challenges. This is an excellent opportunity for organizations to determine what’s important and what is not. Is it important that an employee is sitting at their desk and available for 8 hours straight everyday? Are the processes that have been followed for years really necessary? Or is the fact that work is actually getting done and deadlines are being met more important?

Diverse & engaged teams

The power of diverse thinking and inclusivity has been well-documented over the years, and not surprisingly, our responsive organization research backs that up. We know that organizations with diverse thought and inclusive behaviors do better – from higher engagement scores to more innovation – than their less inclusive-minded counterparts. We also know that diverse thought and inclusive behavior leads to more responsive organizations – allow them to react more quickly to external threats and opportunities.

Advice from leaders:
  • Take advantage of the sense of humanness happening right now. Leaders mentioned that there is now more inclusivity and shared responsibility to carry the load and help each other out. Some leaders mentioned they had seen teams pull in people who are relevant, but not central, to disperse feelings of isolation. They also mentioned the need of leaders to be open and vulnerable about what they didn’t know so that others felt safe to do so as well.
  • Leaders, create opportunities for contribution. Leaders mentioned ideas to help employees feel included – particularly those who may be more introverted and less likely to speak up. Ideas included: sending detailed agendas, complete with challenges to be discussed and decisions to be made, so that everyone had an opportunity to think about how they could contribute; being aware of those not actively participating in discussions, and encouraging them, either with back channel communication, or gentle verbal prompts, to share their ideas; establishing that there are no bad ideas; emphasizing that we’re all in this together and working to solve the same challenges.
  • Make decisions together. As fairly radical changes are being made to structure, work environment, communication patterns, and work itself, leaders in the roundtable encouraged other leaders to make as many decisions as possible together as teams. Things such as asking for agenda items, asking for input on meeting cadence, duration, ideas for getting the work done, and the like, can go a long way to build trust and buy in.
  • Understand nuances in team engagement. With the large number of people working remotely, it’s worth paying attention to how teams are maintaining their engagement at this time. As such, it’s important that leaders maintain an open mind to varying levels of engagement that may point to different needs across teams. So in addition to providing resources to individual people, organizations should consider providing resources to teams like promoting frequent check-ins, managing collective anxiety, and showing empathy toward one another.
  • Scale up tools. To keep a close pulse on engagement, leaders in our roundtable mentioned that organizations need to amplify and scale up tools, especially for middle-managers so they can understand team engagement real-time. We heard that this is a particular area of opportunity, especially for the healthcare industry because it tends to lag behind in engagement tools and resources at the mid-management level.


Organizations that distribute authority get more Collaboration (and should encourage it). More minds are better than one – and organizations are able to gather insights across different areas or business functions when authority is distributed.

Cross-functional teams are enabled to solve challenges or take advantage of opportunities at the edge of the organization rather than waiting for central decision-makers to either notice the challenge or prioritize it. Collaboration also builds employee networks, which in turn increases the flow of knowledge around the organization, allowing employees more ready access to expertise.

Advice from leaders:
  • Be clear on expectations. Distributed authority does not mean that organizations operate in chaos. Organizations should be clear on expectations and desired outcomes. For teams, either formal or informal, expectations can act as a unifying force that help to foster communication and break down barriers
  • Look for stumbling blocks. As organizations have focused on efficiency and productivity over the past 100 years, they’ve also standardized ways of doing things that often stand in the way of collaboration. To enable employees to exercise their authority, organizations should look for those things that may keep employees from sharing information with each other and helping each other on projects.
  • Embrace self-driven teams. Allowing greater fluidity in how teams operate may help address some of the current engagement challenges people face today. For example, people in autonomous or self-driven teams can volunteer to combine different skills or talents to address a particular immediate need and maximize their impact. They can also exercise autonomy as a team by deciding priorities to work on each day and how they will divvy up tasks to accomplish them.
  • Think in terms of MVP deliverables. A minimum viable product (MVP) or deliverable is a version of the deliverable that allows a team to collect the maximum amount of value with the least amount of effort. Particularly now, organizations can begin to think in terms of MVP and consistent iteration instead of holding a deliverable until it is nigh on perfect. This encourages innovation and collaboration, but also helps employees focus on what is value-add.
  • Default to the strategy. In helping employees determine what’s important, consistently reiterate the end goal or strategy. Ask them to ask themselves, “how is what I’m doing related to the end goal or strategy?”
  • Stand up meetings. While many teams are not currently collocated, one leader said that they still have a daily standup meeting. The meeting allows all members to check in with each other, to raise questions or concerns, and to state what they will be working on. This requires each team member to come to that meeting already having thought about the value-add activities they would be accomplishing during the day. It was also a nice opportunity to connect on a human level.
  • Focus internally. A few leaders mentioned that they are using this time to actively work on their internal structures and norms. Employees and managers are finding internal projects that have been on the back burner for years, but once complete, will increase the abilities of the organization. Thus, not all value-add activities should be externally focused; sometimes the best thing employees can focus on are internal.

To sum up

Overall, our roundtable conversations acknowledged the important role that distributing decision-making has on enabling the organization to effectively and efficiently respond to external needs.  There was also a sense of urgency around the need for greater clarity, communication, and expectations around decisions, especially within the current remote working context.

A special thanks for all the leaders who joined our second roundtable. Thank you for your willingness to share ideas and insights – it makes our research that much better!

The Purpose-Driven Org: What the Literature Says

Posted on Thursday, April 16th, 2020 at 2:17 PM    


We’ve been living in a COVID-19 world for quite some time now, and many people are feeling the effects. Companies cut more than 700,000 jobs in March and the total of unemployed workers now exceeds 16 million.1,2 Suppliers are scaling back on production,3 and the consumer confidence index declined in March to 120.0 as compared with 132.6 in February.4 In many ways, there's a sense that we just need to survive this time before we can get “back to normal.”

But in so many other ways, this crisis is providing an opportunity for individuals and organizations to contribute more to others than they ever have before. Many leaders right now assume that companies have an obligation to their workers and communities – even to humankind – to figure out what they can uniquely contribute to help others get through this crisis. And what’s more – to get it to them for free or at cost. (Click here for an epic list of companies contributing to humankind.)

This crisis has brought purpose-driven organizations – those organizations with a responsibility to deliver value to its stakeholders, not just shareholders – into the spotlight.

Given this dynamic, it's even more important to understand how organizations inspire people and make purpose-driven decisions. Our hope is that we can capitalize on this unique moment to better understand how leaders and HR professionals can leverage purpose to navigate the current crisis and continue to add value well beyond it.

To that end, we have begun a study on this topic for which we're asking:

What is the role of purpose-driven organizations today, and how can they help stakeholders navigate and survive this new reality?

It’s important to start by understanding what others have said – and there’s a lot of that! To better understand purpose in organizations, we looked at more than 50 published scholarly articles, periodicals, research reports, and blogs from the past 5 years. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, we also extensively scoured what's been written more recently to identify trends or shifts in purpose-driven organizations.

5 themes from our lit review

Five themes emerged from our review. In this article, we summarize the most interesting insights we learned:

  1. Good purpose statements inspire action
  2. Relationships anchored in purpose can increase resilience
  3. Purpose enriches the employee experience
  4. Leaders face barriers to purpose-driven decisions
  5. Purpose-driven metrics are a big problem

Good purpose statements inspire action

Many organizations spend a significant amount of time, effort, and even money developing a purpose statement. Some even outsource it to PR or advertising firms to come up with a catchy slogan. But our review found a different story for organizations that are able to develop a good purpose statement and activate it throughout the organization.

Good purpose statements are clearly defined and distinct from other different, though related, terms like mission, vision, values, and principles:5,6

  • Mission. Establishes the organization’s specific business – what it is and what it isn’t
  • Vision. Defines what the organization aspires to become in the future
  • Values. Defines what the organization prioritizes and values most
  • Principles. Outlines a set of behavioral guidelines or rules

Purpose, on the other hand, has its unique flavor:7

Purpose: Expresses the organization’s impact on multiple stakeholders (employees, customers, shareholders, suppliers, communities) and connects to people’s intrinsic motivation. At times, it’s even called an organization’s philosophical beat because it serves to inspire employees.

Good purpose statements motivate people to take action through a shared sense of direction. It's shared because there's a collective sense among colleagues of working toward an unquestionable common goal.8

Relationships anchored in purpose can increase resilience

For purpose-driven leaders, challenging situations represent an opportunity for the organization to live up to its purpose of serving a greater cause. This couldn’t be more true in today’s coronavirus situation. Many organizations are shifting priorities to address market needs, such as distilleries and perfume makers that are now manufacturing hand sanitizers9 or automakers now producing ventilators.10 These actions can go a long way. Research shows that 88% of people feel it’s particularly crucial that organizations not only have a clear purpose statement, but they also demonstrate behaviors which are congruent with it.11

In our readings, we found that the benefits of purpose go both ways because people are more willing to help and defend a purpose-driven organization, if necessary. In a recent U.S. study, for example12

  • 73% of people said they would be more likely to defend a purpose-driven company if someone spoke badly of it
  • 67% of people said they would be more forgiving of companies that lead with purpose compare to those that do not

In companies that had an average annual growth rate of 30% or more in the previous 5 years, purpose enabled them to overcome the challenges of slowing growth and declining profitability.13 In general, purpose isn’t only beneficial to stakeholders, but it's also favorable to purpose-driven organizations. It allows them to build trust and loyalty both internally and externally, which in the end, can make them more resilient to challenging situations.

Purpose enriches the employee experience

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, it may be easy for employee experience – employees’ collective perceptions of their ongoing interactions with the organization14 – to take a back seat as organizations grapple with business disruptions. But, while it may be tempting to neglect employee experience, truly purpose-driven organizations tend to be better equipped to protect it.

For example, in purpose-driven organizations, HR plays a crucial role in helping people understand their purpose, how it connects to the organization’s purpose, and how their daily work contributes to it. This extra attention and effort in helping individuals connect their individual work to the organization’s purpose, especially during a crisis, go a long way in enhancing people’s connection to their work and the organization. Employees who perceive their work as meaningful and purposeful are 3 times more likely to stay with their organization.15

Organizational culture is a particularly important element in purpose-driven organizations. For example, we noticed a parallel between our study on employee experience and the purpose-driven organizations in our readings. Organizations with a positive employee experience display 5 behaviors that are woven into their cultural fabric (see Figure 1).16

Figure1 The Purpose-Driven Organization Literature Review Summary

Figure 1: 5 Essential Behaviors in Supportive Cultures | Source: RedThread Research, 2019.

Similarly, purpose-driven organizations, and especially leaders, tend to demonstrate behaviors that support a positive employee experience:

  • Collaboration. In purpose-driven cultures, shared purpose – a collective sense of working with colleagues toward a common goal – is the most important source of meaning for employees.
    • And meaning matters because employees who rate their work as very meaningful report 14% more job satisfaction than average employees, and 51% more satisfaction than employees with the least meaningful jobs.17
    • The power of shared purpose is more important now than ever. Consider healthcare workers on the frontlines who continue to put themselves at risk to treat infected patients driven by their shared purpose of saving lives.
    • Examples of HR activities that foster collaboration and shared purpose:
      • Career pathing to help existing employees discover their individual purpose and align it to career paths, projects, and new experiences that fuel their sense of meaning and purpose.
      • Learning and development opportunities – training, mentoring, coaching, education, resources – to help employees build skills that further their sense of meaning along with the organization’s purpose.
  • Alignment. Purpose-driven leaders use storytelling to help employees personally identify with the impact of their daily work on the organization’s stakeholders,18 which creates alignment and a stronger sense of shared purpose.
    • The current pandemic is inspiring a sense of shared purpose and alignment among many leaders. Messages like Together We Will Persevere from SAP’s co-CEOs and Coming Together to Combat COVID-19 from Microsoft’s CEO are more common now than in recent years.
    • Example of HR practices that create alignment:
      • Recruitment (hiring for purpose) by having a compelling employer brand that attracts the right individual to apply for jobs at the organization.
  • Transparency. Purpose-driven organizations have leaders who translate (reduce the complexity of purpose) and truthfully communicate the social impact of every decision.19
    • Consider for example, Patagonia’s decision to close all stores amid the COVID-19 outbreak to protect both employees and customers, and their commitment to continuing to pay employees throughout their closure.
    • Example of HR practices that cultivate transparency:
      • Communication to clearly and constantly convey purpose-driven beliefs, values, assumptions, behaviors, and decisions.
  • Psychological safety. Purpose-driven leaders dedicate time to talk personally with employees and intentionally integrate rituals or events that manifest their shared sense of purpose and enhance their mutual trust and psychological safety.
    • Crises like the current pandemic are testing many leaders’ ability to calm down fears and instill a sense of safety throughout the organization. The Coronavirus Generosity Challenge is an example of leaders who are finding ways to make a positive contribution internally and externally amid the current situation.
    • Example of HR practices that build greater psychological safety:
      • Manager support to learn to lead a remote team with empathy (e.g., encourage them to check-in more frequently with their direct reports via video conferencing or phone calls and have meaningful conversations).
  • Feedback-sharing. Purpose-driven organizations actively solicit employees’ ideas to activate their individual sense of meaning and their collective sense of purpose.20
    • Purpose-driven organizations tend to measure purpose through real-time feedback mechanisms (e.g., pulse surveys) that influence the employee experience.
    • Example of HR practices that support feedback-sharing:
      • Pulse surveys to collect real-time and frequent employee feedback, especially during these challenging times.

Leaders face barriers to purpose

Historically, many leaders have believed that a purpose-driven focus conflicts with a profit-driven approach. This may be of no surprise as most of the world has focused on only maximizing profit for shareholders. But even though purpose is often cast as the opposite of business profit, this isn’t necessarily the case.

Organizations can define their impact on stakeholders as a spectrum of possibilities based on what aligns with the firm’s objectives and values. This spectrum can range from deliberate social impact to maximizing both impact and profit objectives, and to meeting the traditional market expectations of pure business profit (see Figure 2).21

Figure 2 The Purpose-Driven Organization Literature Review Summary

Figure 2: The Force for Good Spectrum | Source: INSEAD Responsibility – BLOG, 2020.

Beyond the purpose-vs-profit debate, leaders face other barriers that prevent them from adopting purpose-driven strategies:22,23

  • Market volatility tied to shareholder expectations, which hinders leaders’ ability to focus on long-term value creation
  • C-level executives sometimes lack the ability to envision synergies between sustainable development goals and their business
  • Organizational systems and infrastructure that are not aligned with long-term purpose and value
  • Hiring people whose individual purpose does not align with the organization’s purpose
  • The lack of development opportunities for leaders who do not behave in purpose-driven ways
  • Employee performance targets and incentives that are not aligned with the organization’s purpose

This is further worsened by limited purpose-driven targets or incentives tied to leaders’ scorecards; 68% of leaders see the need to make better progress in this area.24

Yet, it seems like the current COVID-19 pandemic is affording leaders a bit of flexibility to make more purpose-driven decisions than in years’ past. We’re seeing this play out in leaders’ responses to policies and practices that protect employees or in their rapid pooling of resources to address community needs for more ventilators or masks. We see 2020 as providing an opportunity to cement a purpose-driven approach as a strategic and imperative way of doing business.

Purpose-driven metrics are a big problem

Nowadays, purpose is touted as a cost-of-entry for any business. This has been partly driven by pressure from well-known investors,25 by increased scrutiny over the impact of organizations on stakeholders,26 and, to a certain extent, by the promise of greater consumer trust and loyalty along with increased talent retention.27

This focus on purpose-driven organizations is bringing the need to measure impact to the forefront – which is easier said than done. In theory, purpose-driven organizations can substantiate their triple bottom line (TBL) impact on 3 areas: people, planet, and profit.28 There are numerous measurement approaches that follow TBL principles. Here are some of the common ones:

  • Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria29
  • Includes measures of environmental impact (e.g., green building, pollution prevention, energy efficiency), social metrics (e.g., human capital engagement, labor standards), and governance (e.g., business ethics).
  • Social return on investment (SROI)30
  • Tracks relevant social, environmental, and economic outcomes to forecast or evaluate impact. It calculates a ratio after assigning a monetary value to inputs and outcomes.
  • B Corporation Certification31
  • Assesses all aspects of a company (environmental and social impact, corporate governance, community involvement) based on accountability and transparency standards.
  • SAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment32
  • Serves a wide range of stakeholders and includes several indices:
    • The Dow Jones Sustainability Indices (DJSI)
    • S&P ESG Index
  • ISO 26000 Social Responsibility33
  • Provides guidelines to effectively assess and address social responsibilities to multiple stakeholders: customers, employees, environment, suppliers, and shareholders.

But in reality, organizations find it challenging to actually measure their TBL; only 35% of companies align their business practices to a multistakeholder model today.34 This is partly driven by unclear and unsystematic reporting mechanisms.

Entities such as The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) aim to fill this gap by outlining specific reporting guidelines that facilitate organization- and industrywide comparisons.35 Organizations can use the recommended guidelines to report their impact across clearly defined economic, environmental, and social categories.

Must-read articles

These articles caught our attention because they're interesting or insightful in helping us understand purpose-driven organizations.

Gartner HR survey reveals 88% of organizations have encouraged or required employees to work from home due to coronavirus

Brian Kropp

“As the COVID-19 crisis disrupts organizations across the globe, HR leaders must respond quickly and comprehensively, considering both immediate and long-term talent consequences.”

This article summarizes findings from a recent HR survey on how organizations are addressing coronavirus challenges and needs.

  • States that 88% of organizations have encouraged or required employees to work from home.
  • Shows how organizations are responding to coronavirus-related absences.
  • Lists recommendations for HR leaders on managing remote talent.

COVID-19 and corporate purpose—Four ways businesses can respond now

Greg Hills

“When faced with this unremitting uncertainty, how can a company maintain clarity on its societal purpose? What is the role and responsibility of your business in a time of chaos and crisis?”

This article suggests four levers to guide purpose-driven organizations during the current COVID-19 crisis.

  • Recommends that organizations leverage their core business assets to meet the current needs of stakeholders.
  • Emphasizes the importance of focusing on generosity and compassion (vs. profit) during this time of need by adding value to stakeholders, especially employees and local communities.
  • Advises leaders to keep a long-term view of their company’s role in navigating the pandemic and helping stakeholders return to normalcy once the current crisis passes.

We are nowhere near stakeholder capitalism

Vijay Govindarajan & Anup Srivastava

“While we admit that considerable progress has been made in developing theory, models, and disclosure norms for ESG objectives, we believe that we are nowhere close to achieving ‘integrated reporting,’ as some people might claim.”

This article states that many organizations aren’t creating value for all stakeholders.

  • Suggests that real change will come once organizations transform their financial and non-financial measures.
  • Mentions that maximizing shareholder returns remains the main objective – while keeping ESG goals as a secondary objective – for many organizations.
  • Asserts that organizations aren’t close to developing an “integrated reporting” framework that includes both tangible and intangible capital resources.

Put purpose at the core of your strategy

Thomas W. Malnight, Ivy Buche, Charles Dhanaraj

“When customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders see that a company has a strong higher purpose, they are more likely to trust it and more motivated to interact with it.”

This article highlights results from a global study of companies that use purpose to generate sustainable growth, stay relevant, and deepen ties with stakeholders.

  • Describes a purpose-driven strategy to help companies overcome challenges.
  • Provides specific suggestions to help organizations define their purpose and implement it as a core business strategy.
  • Highlights the tangible and intangible benefits of purpose to organizations.

Putting purpose to work: A study of purpose in the workplace

Shannon Schuyler & Abigail Brennan

“Purpose is about empathy – it defines the human needs and desires that a company’s products and services fulfill.”

This report discusses results from a study of over 1,500 U.S. employees across 39 industries on purpose in the workplace.

  • Considers leaders’ role in purpose-driven organizations, especially in their communication and decision-making.
  • Identifies team leaders and coaches as holding the greatest potential to help employees identify and translate their individual meaning and purpose into the organization’s purpose.
  • Discusses the role of younger generations in shaping the purpose conversation.

9 out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to do more-meaningful work

Shawn Achor, Andrew Reece, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, Alexi Robichaux

“The old labor contract between employer and employee – the simple exchange of money for labor – has expired.”

This article discusses results from the Meaning and Purpose at Work Report, and asserts that people highly value meaningful work.

  • Identifies that more than 9 out of 10 employees are willing to trade a percentage of the earnings for greater meaning at work.
  • States that many companies fail to leverage the power of meaning at work despite its many benefits to both employees and organizations.
  • Recommends a series of actions companies and leaders can take to support and foster a sense of meaning and purpose throughout the organization.

Additional articles for your reading pleasure

  1. A Time to Lead with Purpose and Humanity,” Joly, H., Harvard Business Review, 2020.
  2. From Being Purpose-Led to Foster A Toxic Culture: Why Companies Like Away Fail to Live Up to Their Promises,” Bulgarella, C., Forbes, 2019.
  3. Balancing Profit and Social Welfare: Ten Ways to Do It,” Craig Smith, N. & Lankoski, L., INSEAD, 2018.
  4. Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization,” Quinn, R.E. & Thakor, A.V., Harvard Business Review, 2018.
  5. The Purposeful Company,” Chapman, C., Edmans, A., Gosling, T., Hutton, W., & Mayer, C., Big Innovation Centre, 2017.
  6. Purpose-Led Organization: ’Saint Antony’ Reflects on the Idea of Organizational Purpose, in Principle and Practice,” White, A., Yakis-Douglas, B., Helanummi-Cole, H., & Ventresca, M., Journal of Management Inquiry, 2016.
  7. “The Business Case for Purpose,” Keller, V., EY Beacon Institute & Harvard Business Review, 2015.

Employee Experience in Pandemic

Posted on Wednesday, April 15th, 2020 at 9:51 PM    

These are slides from a presentation that Stacia Garr, Co-founder of RedThread Research, gave with Melissa Arronte, Solution Principal at Medallia, to discuss critical areas of employee experience during COVID-19.

Responsive Orgs: Lens 1 – Respect

Posted on Saturday, April 11th, 2020 at 7:23 PM    

The foundational lens of our Model for Responsiveness? RESPECT. Our research shows that organizations that have any intention of effectively responding to their external environments must start with respect of their employees.

Figure 1: Model for Responsiveness | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.


This week, we took the opportunity to gather several leaders together in an interactive roundtable and brainstorming session around RESPECT for employees and the 3 features of employee respect, as shown in Figure 2 below.

3 Areas of Respect for Employees

Figure 2: 3 Areas of Respect for Employees | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.


This leader roundtable addressed each of these 3 areas in the context of two main questions: 1) What are your respective companies doing in these areas? and 2) What are your ideas for doing this better?

This discussion was particularly interesting given the current context: our organizations are faced with the need to radically change internal processes and norms to react to unprecedented change in their marketplaces. Most urgently, companies are ramping employees to work effectively from home; more long-term, companies are considering cashflow and product viability, and making people adjustments to accommodate. Below is a mindmap representing the roundtable discussions.

Responsive org roundtable #1: Respect mindmap

Source: RedThread Research, 2020

For a brief summary of the roundtable and the 3 aspects of a Respectful culture, watch the video below.

Respect roundtable recap

In the following sections, we expound on these 3 areas and highlight the good advice we heard at the roundtable.

Psychological safety

One of the most powerful themes, directly addressed in the psychological safety discussion but permeating all other discussions as well, was the need for organizations to create a psychologically safe place – to view employees as thinking, feeling humans and ensure their well-being.

In times such as these, mistakes will be made and failures will happen. A psychologically safe place acknowledges these mistakes and failures respectfully, without compromising employees’ self respect or jeopardizing their careers.

Advice from leaders:
  • Personal huddles. Quick, concise, personal check ins – not about the work, but about the person. One leader suggested two questions leaders can ask: 1) How stressed are you? and 2) What help do you need?
  • Increased leadership connection. Leaders should be connecting more with employees to understand needs and provide direction. Suggestions included more regular pulse engagement surveys (instead of the yearly, or bi-yearly versions), direct contact with employees that may be struggling, regular check-ins and communication with staff, and follow-up with support for information gathered through surveys and check ins.
  • Leadership responsibility. Managers and leaders set the tone; if organizations are striving for an open, safe, place for employees, it is the managers and leaders who must model the behaviors they expect.


Autonomy & Respect from Leaders showed up in the data together. We think this is because they often go hand in hand: managers who allow more autonomy  among employees tend to respect them more, and vice versa.

Autonomy means that organizations give employees control over the day-to-day operations of their roles. They recognize and honor employees' abilities to use their unique skills and knowledge to problem-solve.

Advice from leaders:
  • Address failure carefully. Employees are paying careful attention to how leaders react to failure. Will leaders continue to encourage intelligent risk-taking and learning from mistakes, or will they buckle down and discourage it? Our roundtable discussion encouraged leaders to share failure stories (including their own) and learn jointly from things that didn’t go quite as planned.
  • Experimentation. Organizations can use the current chaos (nothing is working the same way it did) for experimentation because everything is up in the air. There may be antiquated systems, processes, technologies, or even products that need to be rethought. Now is the time. Organizations should use this time to develop an experimentation muscle to deal with uncertainty and change.
  • Post-crisis team. One leader suggested the idea of putting together a team dedicated to identifying positive changes made during this time and finding ways to institutionalize them. While there is a strong desire to return to “normal,” now is a good time to determine what, if anything, about the “normal” wasn’t good, and retool it.
  • Collaborate with employees. During this time when everything is up in the air, one leader said he noticed more collaboration between managers and employees. Instead of, “Do this!” it was, “What can we do in this circumstance?”
  • Focus on well-being. Leaders also noted that more time was being spent on personal conversations. Managers were asking after employees and their families more, and carving out more time during the week to spend some time together as humans, not just coworkers. Managers were also more understanding (because we’re all in this together…) about screaming children, aging parents, barking dogs, and strange haircuts.
  • Equip managers. One leader mentioned that he would like to see more help for managers – and not just traditional training. Coaching and mentoring, job helps, data, and feedback can both set expectations for what we expect from managers, but also alleviate some of the pressure they’re currently feeling. One leader also suggested creating networked leaders so that they can share information with each other and hold each other accountable for the types of leaders they want to be.

Bottoms up information

Finally, organizations show respect to employees by providing ways to get information to them, but probably more importantly, gather information from them. This shows up in two main ways.

First, through feedback loops. Feedback loops ensure that employees have the information they need to do their jobs as well as information about how they’re performing those jobs. Feedback loops ensure that everyone is on the same page and working in the same direction. One leader noted that organizations often default to being “nice,” or not sharing necessary information because it’s not polite, when in actuality, keeping that information from employees shows a lack of respect for them as humans and as employees.

Second, organizations also show respect to employees, their knowledge, and their skills by soliciting their perspectives. Employees at the edges of the organization, or with deep knowledge in certain areas often identify needed changes before those more centrally located. Established norms for gathering and sharing that information enables organizations to move more quickly as a whole.

Advice from leaders:
  • Use OKRs and goals as feedback mechanisms. Organizations that have moved from yearly goal discussions to more frequent check-ins can and should leverage these discussions to make sure that everyone has the information they need. This ensures that goals don’t get lost at lower levels and established a process and norm for feedback that is often less threatening and more collaborative.
  • Use tools such as retrospectives. Many leaders mentioned that feedback an/or perspective sharing doesn’t happen because there are not mechanisms in place. A retrospective is an exercise wherein a team gets together to discuss what went well, what didn’t go well, and what needs to change. This can be used at the end of a project, at certain milestones within a project, or even at regular intervals. A retrospectives normalizes feedback and perspectives and eliminates the need for blaming. It also promotes teamwork. (Incidentally, we used a retrospective at the end of our last roundtable to make the next one even better.)
  • Model behaviors. This has been mentioned in previous areas we have discussed, but it bears mentioning again. Feedback and perspective-sharing often doesn’t happen unless it is modeled by leaders. Some suggestions for modeling from the roundtable included: clearly setting expectations and holding managers responsible for feedback / perspective sharing; inviting senior leaders (CEO) to be transparent on where the company is during a crisis and inviting questions / suggestions; and providing coaching job aids that give managers key information about how to give feedback.

To sum up

In all, roundtable conversations were much more optimistic than pessimistic. Yes, the current situation is throwing all that we know and are comfortable with out the window, and we are all feeling our way through this. But, as these leaders pointed out, this is a perfect opportunity to make changes that will positively affect the organization internally, as well as help it compete more effectively externally.

A special thanks to all of the leaders who participated in this interactive roundtable. Thank you for your willingness to share your experiences and insights – it makes the research that much better!

The Responsive Org: The Future is Now

Posted on Tuesday, March 31st, 2020 at 10:30 PM    

So, things have changed

Not to overstate it, but within the space of three weeks, our entire reality has changed – personally and professionally. We are now social distancing, homeschooling our children, and hoarding toilet paper (you know who you are). But, as people leaders, we’re also trying to figure out how to enable entire workforces to work virtually, understand markets that have changed ridiculously fast, and deal with the financial repercussions of “doing the right thing.” It’s hard. And it’s a little bit scary.

The good news (if there is good news) is that many of the professional changes we're seeing were likely inevitable: changes in technology, the global nature of business, and evolving customer and employee needs had already set us down this path. Before the crisis, some organizations had begun to peer around the corner to the future, putting in place the strategy, infrastructure, and practices to respond to changing environments quickly.

So many others, though, kept talking about the need to respond to these things in the future, expecting that they’d have time to adjust. However, thanks to COVID-19, the future is here. And it's evenly distributed1

Some organizations are recognizing the opportunity before us. In a recent webinar, HFS Research shared that 22% of their sample of 279 major enterprises indicated they were seeing emerging opportunities as a result of the crisis and are making appropriate investments (or actively responding to the situation). Only 16% said that they were hunkering down and planning to roll out cost-saving measures, and exactly 0% said that their business was in grave danger and that they were considering drastic immediate options to survive this.2

Figure 1: Changes to Business Decision-Making from COVID-19 | Source: HFS Research, 2020.

So how do you move toward a position of taking advantage of emerging opportunities? The first step is to understand what an organization that can respond quickly to change looks like.

For the last 6 months, we have been studying the idea of organizational responsiveness – or what makes organizations able to respond more quickly to their market and employees’ needs than others.

This research was originally due to publish in May 2020. However, as we've looked at the incredible efforts of organizations to respond to this new reality, we recognize that our model and some of our findings could create some coherence and provide some guidance for leaders trying to help employees right now.

What the research says

Six months of research, lots of literature reviewed, and several conversations with really smart people have provided a sound overview of what a responsive organization is, what characteristics they have, and how organizations should become more responsive. The following discussion is led by the following 4 questions.

  • What is a responsive organization?
  • What characteristics do responsive organizations have?
  • A model for responsiveness: How do I prioritize as I build a responsive organization?
  • How can I participate in the roundtables?

What is a responsive organization?

One of the most difficult parts of this study has been trying to understand and clearly articulate what a responsive organization is – defining the undefinable qualities that separate those organizations who can respond to their environments from the ones that are at their mercy. After scouring the literature and conducting a lot of interviews, we landed on the following definition for a responsive organization:

An organization that determines trends in their environment and responds to them in ways that turn possible disruption into a distinct organizational advantage.

Responsive organizations are not just those who are able to keep up with the market; they are defined by their ability to understand and use trends to move ahead of the market. Four quick examples from recent history:

  • General Motors3 – For getting rid of unprofitable parts of the business so that they can focus on mobility – not just automobiles – broadening both their market and their innovation. (An example of this responsiveness on display at this moment is their quick turn to manufacturing ventilators within their electric vehicle manufacturing plant4.)
  • Target5 – For recognizing and understanding the trend toward boutiques and creating cult brands inhouse to fight the big box store image and remain competitive.
  • Netflix6 – For continuously pivoting as they recognized trends in the marketplace – from mailed DVDSs, to streaming movies, to partnerships with networks to stream content, and ultimately to becoming an award-winning studio of their own.
  • Amazon7 – For seeing the potential in delivering items directly to one’s door versus leaving the house for them, and then creating large-scale efficiency by doing so.

In the cases of each of these organizations, they weren’t just lucky moves – they didn’t just happen into the right answer. They were able to recognize trends in the marketplace and capitalize on them. And in order to do that, they needed a people structure and philosophy that supported it.

What characteristics does a responsive organization have?

During our initial research, we searched, not just for good examples of responsive organizations, but also what those organizations have in common – the characteristics that they share. Through extensive literature reviews and many interviews, a set of characteristics emerged. Figure 2 outlines these characteristics and provides a company example of each.

Characteristic Explanation Example Company

Decentralized structure
Decentralized structures allow the organization’s various divisions and business units to react to the environments in which they find themselves instead of relying on central control to react to ‘average’ environments. W.L. Gore has long been held up as an example of decentralized structure. Traditional org charts found in most organizations are not found at Gore. Everyone has the right to talk to everyone else, providing the freedom the organization has needed to innovate in areas ranging from Gore-Tex to aerospace cable wiring assemblies.8

Team-based organization
Responsive organizations tend to leverage teams – both formal and informal – to react to internal and external conditions, and to share knowledge across the organization. Teams come together to solve problems, and then often dissolve and reform so that employees are constantly sharing what they know and applying that knowledge to solve new problems. Cisco talks of making teams the source of insight and inquiry. Cisco allows teams to self-identify – recognizing both the formal and informal teams, and then offers team leaders development resources and information about how their team is working.9

Continuous learning & development
Responsive organizations tend to prioritize (read: invest) in continuous learning and development so that their workforces can gain needed knowledge and skills for a constantly changing environment. It often moves far beyond traditional learning events and instead embraces a culture of teaching each other, exploring beyond the walls of the organization, and trying new ideas. Unilever takes continuous learning & development seriously, most recently introducing the idea of a talent network. Employees are asked to create “purpose statements” and share their skills (and desired skills) broadly. Using an ecosystem of learning, work, and people management technologies, employees become a part of the talent network – a system that finds projects that align to development goals as well as already developed skills.10

Openly shares information and data
Responsive organizations tend to be freer with information – meaning that not only do they intend to share information throughout the organization, but that they also put mechanisms into place in order to ensure that it happens. Zendesk has a policy of radical candor amongst its employees, and regularly conducts root cause analysis to help their teams dig into problems. This practice is used in the moment of error. Instead of simply identifying and commenting on incorrect code or bring it up later (after it’s been fixed, the team stops, discusses why the code is incorrect, and how it happened in the first place.
This practice creates a culture of sharing and openness and allows the organization to learn and respond together.11

Dispersed decision-making authority
Responsive organizations tend to be less hierarchical in their decision-making – allowing them to be made at lower levels, which speeds up work and helps organizations move more quickly. Ritz Carlton empowers all of their Ladies and Gentlemen (what they call their employees) to solve guest problems to the tune of $2,000, per guest, per incident.12 This move disperses decision-making authority throughout the organization, making it more able to meet the needs and desires of their guests.

Tools to help employees do their best work
Responsive organizations tend to be early intelligent experimenters of technologies that help employees excel. Some of the more recent of these technologies includes AI, natural language processing, and blockchain. Some of the experiments and implementations leaders we have spoken with are trying include:

  • AI – for surfacing the best information for learning a specific thing
  • Analytics – offering insights into personal behavior
  • Natural language processing – using tech to “listen” in meetings and provide insights to leaders to make them more effective
  • Nudges – offering timely, insightful data to improve personal interactions

Figure 2: Characteristics of Responsive Organizations | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

We think it interesting that these 6 characteristics repeatedly surfaced in our discussions and in the literature. Much has been written about them individually; however, in our work, we see them as part of a holistic system that works together.

These patterns formed the basis of the survey questions we asked. From these 6 characteristics (which, again, were based on significant qualitative research), we formed a Responsivity Index that was then used to determine which actions taken by organizations contribute significantly to their ability to be responsive.

What's the model? How do I build a responsive organization?

Once we understood what a responsive organization was and the characteristics it had, we used the data to create a model of responsiveness, as shown in Figure 3. This model represents 4 layers that build on each other to create responsive organizations.

Figure 3: A Model for Responsiveness | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

Why layers instead of levels? Good question, with two answers. First, as the model shows, the layers are transparent. Organizations, looking down through the top of the model, can see the impact of the lower layers on the higher layers. For example, it is difficult for an organization to be responsive at all without baseline respect. Respect is on the bottom of this model and affects all four layers.

Second, organizations that have made it to Layer 2 still have to focus on Layer 1. While our conversations with leaders indicated that there was a good deal of “systematization” that could occur to enable lower layers, people leaders still need to pay attention to those lower layers.

Interestingly, the data shows it's difficult, if not impossible, to jump layers. For example, most organizations aspire to be the type of organization its employees and the market trusts. However, to do so, the organization must also espouse respect, distribute authority, and have a culture of transparency and growth.

As with other models of this type, the more responsive an organization is (i.e., the higher the layer it has achieved), the more likely it is to:

Figure 4: Met or Exceeded Business Goals | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

Figure 5: Very Highly Engaged Employees | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

Figure 6: Responds Quickly to Changes in the Marketplace to a Very Great Extent | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

Figure 7: Innovates Faster Than Competitors to a Very Great Extent | Source: RedThread Research, 2020.

Let’s briefly review each layer.

Layer 1: Respect

Interestingly, our data and interviews suggest that good old-fashioned respect is the foundation for all organization responsiveness. While this shouldn’t be surprising, it's a bit surprising how often respect is sidelined, particularly during times of crises. We are seeing this real-time with COVID-19. As organizations pivot in-office work arrangements to work-at-home arrangements, we’ve heard horror stories about organizations (and managers) who insist on detailed schedules and task lists at the start of each day, theoretically to ensure that employees are “on task” and not wasting company time.

This is not a new problem. In a Georgetown University survey of nearly 20,000 employees worldwide, respect was rated the most important leadership behavior. At the same time, though, employees report more disrespectful and uncivil behavior each year.13

Organizations looking to be more responsive to their market absolutely need to be an organization that espouses respect: from the organization to employee, from employee to employee, and importantly, from manager to employee.

Layer 2: Distributed authority

Layer 2 happens when organizations begin to change the way their authority structures work. During the first industrial revolution (and since, actually), there was a propensity toward efficiency. It's undoubtedly more efficient to make decisions centrally and have them roll throughout the organization flawlessly.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work anymore. With diversified portfolios, different clients, and varying needs in business units, organizations need more flexibility. Like it or not, it's often quite inefficient to wait for a central authority to make a decision on something happening around the edges of the organization.

What’s more, this centralization likely stifles both agility and innovation. In her great book, Seeing Around Corners, Rita McGrath talks about innovation happening at the “edges of the organization.” In order to react to those changes at the edge of the organization and take advantage of opportunities there, organizations necessarily need to distribute authority much more widely than most of them currently do. According to our data, distributed authority at all levels helps with collaboration, and helps to eliminate busywork or nonvalue work.

Layer 3: Transparency & growth

Layer 3 describes the way organizations share information and encourage growth. A lot has been written lately on the importance of continuous learning & development, and it's become a buzzword in the employee development space. This has been enhanced with the ever-growing reskilling discussion: at least 54% of the population will need upskilling by 2022 (WEF), and 50% of them have concrete plans in order to do so (KPMG).

And, once again, this problem has been exacerbated by the current COVID-19 situation. Organizations, who frankly should have been looking at this all along, are suddenly faced with making sure leaders can lead, employees can work remotely, they are communicating as needed, and that employees are continuing to develop new skills – all in what was once considered “nontraditional” environments (they very well may become our new traditional environments).

Responsive organizations embrace the idea of growth. Particularly, they embrace the idea of growth outside of traditional channels. These organizations do not rely on classes and elearning courses to upskill their workforce; rather, they empower them to learn by doing, to fail safely, to understand which skills may be useful to them and to the organization in the future, and to give them honest data on how they’re performing.

The propensity for growth goes hand in hand with the dedication to transparency. Lack of information is basically ignorance. If employees need the best information to make the best decisions for your company – especially if you have distributed authority, ensuring transparency is crucial to responsiveness.

Layer 4: Trust

Layer 4 is Trust. Organizations with Layer 4 responsiveness have a community mindset. They have ceased to think in terms of “us” (management) and “them” (employees) and instead begin to focus on a “we’re all in this together” attitude – one that helps employees learn from their mistakes and invests in solving problems and learning together.

Obviously, a culture of trust can only exist with the three bottom layers in place. But a culture of trust goes beyond this and encompasses a sense of community. It is no longer enough to have a traditional employee value proposition – one where employees are paid and employers are paternal. At Layer 4, organizations move into an area where purpose and meaning take on more significance.

Responsive organizations – those that espouse purpose, and meaning, and community – work as a unit – an organism that responds along the edges and communicates back to the center. All employees are aware of the mission, vision, and purpose, and all trust that the organization – and other employees – are working together for that good.

Creating Purpose-Driven Organizations

Posted on Wednesday, March 25th, 2020 at 6:09 PM    

Why we care

In 1776, Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations:1

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their self-interest.”

In essence, Smith was saying that businesses exist to make money for themselves, not necessarily so they can feel better about feeding their community, providing high-quality jobs, or producing their goods using environmentally-sensitive methods. This line of thinking – that businesses exist to increase the wealth of their owners (shareholders) – has been a foundational principle for many business leaders.

But not for all business leaders. Since the 1800s, leaders such as Robert Owen, James Cash Penney, and William Lever (among many others) have focused on more than the bottom line, by caring about employees, the environment, and their stakeholders.2 These leaders represent a sense that businesses have a large obligation to their employees and communities.

The tension between these two perspectives has tipped one way and then the other for years. Last fall, though, the balance tipped firmly to the side of businesses having a broader responsibility. In August, the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs from large and significant companies, stated that, in addition to generating long-term value for shareholders and delivering value to their customers, they commit to:

  • “Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
  • Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.
  • Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.”3

Assuming you take the group at their word, this represents a significant shift from a laser-focus on shareholders to a broader one on stakeholders.


Our hypotheses for this study include the following:

  1. The underlying factors contributing to CEOs, senior leaders, and boards of directors embracing stakeholders, in addition to shareholders, are meaningful and different from previous times business leaders have attempted this shift.
  2. Organizations with a purpose that focus on a broader set of stakeholders organize, manage, enable, grow, and amplify their people differently than those primarily focused on just generating shareholder value.
  3. These practices can be codified and scaled such that they are not limited just to a single organization.
  4. These organizations are developing novel – yet potentially standardized – approaches to measuring the impact of their purpose.
  5. These practices can positively impact an organization’s ability to generate shareholder value.

As alluded to above, this isn't the first time business leaders have focused on broader social good. However, we believe there may be some systemic changes, such as global climate change, that are different from previous iterations of this attempt. In this research, we plan to identify those factors and better understand if it really is different this time.

There are numerous examples of organizations who are already attempting to be more purpose-driven. We believe that there are similarities in these organizations’ people management practices.

We plan to better understand:

  • What does “purpose” mean in these organizations and how is it measured?
  • What does “purpose-driven” mean in terms of how organizations attract, engage, develop, and retain their people?
  • How, overall, is the employee experience different at purpose-driven organizations?
  • What do leaders do differently at purpose-driven organizations?
  • What are the implications for HR?
  • How do purpose-driven organizations track their quantifiable impact on stakeholders (e.g., revenue, profitability, engagement)?

This Project

We examine the following concepts in this research project:
Create Purpose Driven Organizations Premise

Preserving Employee Experience During the Coronavirus Crazy

Posted on Friday, March 20th, 2020 at 5:18 PM    

Talking about the crazy

As many of you know, we gathered folks together (in two concurrent sessions, due to level of interest!) to talk about how their organizations are addressing the massive disruptions resulting from the coronavirus. We believe our community has incredible insights within it, and wanted to provide an opportunity for as many as possible to connect and share.

The conversations were thoughtful, enlightening, and informative. Yet, the thing we took away the most was the level of hopefulness, which was expressed in many small ways. The best example was when one person mentioned:

“This is like our Independence Day (you know, the original movie, not the remake). Something is threatening our entire society, and we need to pull together and stop it. And we are!”

So how are we doing this, while at the same time trying to keep people sane, healthy, and productive (if possible)?

We framed the discussion in the context of our employee experience research, focusing on the 4 levers that drive a high-quality experience:

  • A clear philosophy
  • A supportive culture
  • An articulated accountability
  • An aligned measurement

We went through each of these levers and discussed what people are doing in different areas.

The mindmap: Results of our discussions

After the conversations, we summarized the suggestions mentioned in both sessions and have displayed them in this visual map below (use your mouse to move around within the map; you can also download it).

Some key takeaways

One of the suggestions that resonated the most with us was the idea of a coronavirus taskforce, which was shared by someone at a global consulting firm. This group aligns and coordinates efforts, leveraging medical doctors and other relevant experts to help structure and clarify the firm’s response to the crisis. However – and this is key – responsibility and accountability for taking actions is distributed throughout the organization. So, this is not a command and control structure, but rather an alignment and enablement approach.

Building on that, the concept of shared accountability was reinforced throughout the conversation. Organizations are providing people with significant autonomy and ability to get things done as and when it makes sense. If there ever was a time to trust employees and managers to do the right thing, it is now. Yet, as was mentioned several times, it's critical to support them during these times. Provide managers with suggestions on how to best support employees. Provide data when you can that will help everyone perform better.

As mentioned above, there's a lot of finding the good in this challenging moment. For example, one person mentioned because everyone is now remote, communication must be much more explicit. As a result, unexpectedly, this is making productivity skyrocket, because everyone is much clearer on what must get done. Another person mentioned that within organizations there can be subcultures that may have values not aligned to the organization’s larger cultural values. However, remote work was breaking up those subcultures and providing an opportunity to realign folks to the bigger culture. And yet another person mentioned how everyone is so much more open to experimentation, which is providing them with a lot of new ideas they did not have before.

Throughout the session, several resources were shared. We have added those – plus what we had before – to the end of this article (see Appendix 1).

For your viewing pleasure: The 2 sessions

If our summary in the mindmap and above wasn’t enough, you're welcome to listen to the recordings of the calls or review the slides (with hastily written notes) below:

  • Session 1 (Moderated by Stacia Garr / Priyanka Mehrotra)
  • Session 2 (Moderated by Dani Johnson / Karina Freitag)

Preserving Your Employee Experience During The Crazy from Stacia Sherman Garr

These sessions wouldn't have been possible without the active, thoughtful participation of the folks who joined. To each of you, THANK YOU. You both helped the folks on the call this morning, but also anyone who accesses these resources. Thank you for helping make our community smarter and stronger.

We would welcome the opportunity to continue to be of service to our community. What else can we do that would provide value to you and your organization? Let us know in the comments or via direct email at [email protected].

Appendix 1: Resources

Coronavirus support

Articles on coronavirus

Articles on working remotely

Choosing Learning Tech

Posted on Tuesday, March 17th, 2020 at 4:37 PM    

We've been asked for a glossary, of sorts, of the types of tech functionalities that are available in the market. This infographic outlines the 8 tech functionality categories – both those used to engage employees with their own development, and those that L&D functions use to keep the proverbial trains on the tracks. Let us know what you think!

Learning Tool Infographic_2020


RedThread Research is an active HRCI provider