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Zeroing in on the Big Picture: Outlining Purpose to Engage Employees

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

Most people can be reasonably content with their jobs by producing quality work. It’s gratifying to do a job well and know that coworkers and customers rely on them, especially if their work environment is relatively positive. But over the long haul, people need more than self-satisfaction to motivate them.

We all long to be a part of something meaningful and know that our contributions count.

The pandemic prompted everyone to reevaluate their priorities, and many found they weren’t fulfilled by simply performing good work. Researchers at McKinsey report that 70 percent of employees say their sense of purpose is defined by what they do for a living. Consequently, one of the primary reasons behind the attrition trend over the past few years has been people seeking more meaningful jobs.

Interestingly, these workers’ exits may have had more to do with their perception of their former jobs, not the jobs themselves. Many employees left because company leaders failed to clarify the big picture for them and their vital role in organizational success. Employers need to help meet this need or be prepared to lose talent to companies that will.

But beyond curtailing attrition, helping workers derive meaning from their jobs translates to higher performance across the board. It also strengthens employee engagement and morale. Prioritizing and correlating purpose for the company and its staff is a powerful win-win strategy.

The Why, How, and What of a Job

Dr. Sheila Margolis, author and organizational culture consultant, says that people must see the big picture to appreciate and find meaning in their daily work. She notes,

“If a bricklayer only sees his work as the task of laying bricks—without an understanding of the bigger picture—he might not see the future contribution that the new construction will offer. By seeing the organization from a broader perspective, employees can focus on outcomes that make a difference.”

Dr. Margolis encourages leaders to share and help align people’s roles with the big picture.

“When you target the basics of the organization and the basics of the human spirit, it yields a surprising, positive impact.”

She suggests leaders frame the “Why,” “How,” and “What” of the organization to help their people understand the big-picture view.


Dr. Margolis defines an organization’s purpose as its “Why.” Purpose is the contribution to society that the business and its staff make through their collective work. She says leaders should help employees feel like they are integral to an important shared cause.

Acclaimed speaker and author of Your Extraordinary Why Brett Pyle agrees and notes:

“Without purpose, you're never truly satisfied. With purpose, you are focused, engaged, productive, and fulfilled. When each team member knows their unique personal purpose and connects it to the why of their organization, they're ‘All In’–enthusiastically committed to a meaningful cause greater than themselves.”


Dr. Margolis says an organization’s guiding principles define its “How.”

“The ‘How’ creates the mindset that influences attitudes, drives behavior, and thus, characterizes the organization and its members.”

She identifies three layers of an organization’s “How”:

  1. Its distinctive values

Margolis likens this layer to the philosophy or character of the organization. She explains, “It was the way things were at the beginning and still are today. If this philosophy ever changed, the organization would feel like a different place.”

  1. Its strategic priorities

This layer comprises values that enable the organization to achieve its vision and goals. Margolis suggests that leaders define the standards or behaviors that guide how employees should work that will help the organization thrive.

  1. Its universal priorities

Margolis says this layer consists of five qualities that create a culture of motivated employees:

  • Meaning: the understanding that they’re contributing to a cause that matters to them
  • Caring: a supportive, trust-based environment that emphasizes fairness, honesty, and respect
  • Autonomy: the feeling of control, ownership, involvement, and self-accountability
  • Openness: an emphasis on transparency and sharing information in all directions
  • Achievement: learning and personal growth contribute to self-esteem and employee engagement


Margolis believes that the “Why” and “How” offer a higher calling and guidance system for staff members to share. The “What” is the organization’s vision and goals. She explains further:

“The ‘What’ is the strategy of the organization, constructed with an understanding of the global conditions that impact it. The more employees understand the external environment, the more they will internalize the journey to achieve success and be able to make adjustments as changes occur.”

She suggests that leaders define and articulate these organizational goals so employees can effectively contribute to them.

Providing Context

Leadership expert and coach Clifford Morgan delves into outlining purpose for employees in an article for LinkedIn. He concurs with Dr. Margolis’ assertion that leaders should promote the organization’s vision, articulate people’s contributions, provide the big picture, and model and advocate transparency. In addition, he recommends “one-up training,” or giving staff the opportunity to train one or several levels higher than their current role to broaden their perspective. He comments:

“By gaining experience in a higher role, employees will be exposed to additional considerations and have to manage priorities that are beyond what they would normally experience. This form of experiential learning reinforces the explanation of the big picture. Thus when staff return to their role, they are more mindful of considerations outside their immediate bubble when interpreting organizational decisions.”

Even offering employees opportunities to shadow people in other roles will expand their awareness and understanding of organizational synergies. The more aspects of the company employees experience, the better their comprehension of the big picture.

CultureWise CEO and award-winning speaker David J. Friedman writes about providing context to employees in his book, Culture by Design. He recommends helping employees learn how they fit into the larger picture during the onboarding process immediately after they’re hired.

Friedman suggests sessions where recruits can learn the company’s history, strategy, what makes it distinctive in the market, how profit is generated, and the function of each department. He also offers ideas about how to help new staff feel part of something larger and understand how they fit in.

The Big Picture Process

Clifford Morgan stresses that while following all the above suggested steps will help employees see the big picture, it’s more than just a one-and-done process. He cautions that without follow-up, employees will revert to simply focusing on their daily tasks and interpreting operations through that limited lens.

Morgan advises leaders to regularly repeat exercises that relay the big picture to make the perspective stick. He notes:

“In doing so, they pave the way for understanding and acceptance of organizational decisions, which leads to buy-in and engagement. More importantly, they are developing their staff by encouraging them to broaden their perspective, think more strategically and preparing them to perform at the next level of the organization.”

Like links in a strong chain, every employee plays a role in a company’s success. Employers can help their people understand and appreciate their contributions by unveiling the big picture. The most effective way for them to achieve this goal is to integrate methods that link organizational and personal purpose into their workplace culture.


Schedule a session with a CultureWise specialist to learn about building an empowering organizational culture that helps employees thrive.