We’ve all heard about how important purpose is to both organisations and people, but as work changes and hybrid work models become the norm, purpose has renewed importance.
After the last year and a half, we need to re-motivate ourselves. In addition, as leaders we need to ensure we’re attracting the best talent, retaining people and engaging both hearts and minds. Purpose is a critical way we can accomplish these.
But there’s more to know about purpose, and what it takes for purpose to make a difference—for people or for organisations.
Purpose Matters for People and Organisations
Starting with people, purpose matters in many ways. For example, a study in Psychosomatic Medicine found when people have greater senses of purpose, they have less incidence of cardiovascular disease and lower mortality. In addition, a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania found when people had a greater sense of purpose they experienced less loneliness and made better lifestyle choices to protect their health in the face of Covid-19.
Purpose is also powerful for companies. A study published by Harvard Business Review found when companies had a clearly articulated purpose which was widely understood in the organisation they had better growth as compared with companies which hadn’t developed or leveraged their purpose. Specifically, 52% of purpose-driven companies experienced over 10% growth compared with 42% of non-purpose-driven companies. Purpose-driven companies benefitted from greater global expansion (66% compared with 48%), more product launches (56% compared with 33%) and success in major transformation efforts (52% compared with 16%).
Purpose also delivers benefits in terms of the work experience. A study by Northwestern University found when companies had a greater sense of purpose, their employees reported their work was more meaningful. And research by the University of Sussex found when leaders demonstrated clear purpose—vision, commitment to stakeholders and strong morals—their people were happier and more productive.
Why Purpose Matters Now
Purpose has always impacted people and business, but the disruption of the last year and a half magnify its importance: When we weren’t able to go out as much, when we were isolated from our people and when our lives were turned upside down, we were reminded of what really mattered to us. Through their absence or discombobulation, we were reminded of what we needed and desired for a full life. Purpose has been brought to the top of mind for people.
In addition, we are in the midst of nothing less than a talent revolution with 40% of people saying they plan to leave their current employer (based on a Microsoft survey) and 43% of businesses reporting they will seek to increase headcounts (based on a McKinsey study). When people choose to leave a company, join a new organisation or remain with their current role, purpose is a factor which will significantly influences their choices.
Defining Purpose and Dreaming Small
Generally, purpose is a belief that your life matters and that you make a difference. It is a sense of being guided by meaningful values and goals. Purpose can be related to families or parenting, career, religion, activism, artistic pursuits or other contributions to community. In Japanese, the word Ikigai describes a reason for being, or a reason to wake up in the morning.
The Importance of Alignment
A key element of purpose is alignment. We will be most engaged in our work when the mission and goals of the organisation also matter to us—and when we feel like we can make a contribution to the bigger picture. We all want to build castles, not just lay bricks. For example, working on an industrial line making hardware (think: hooks, doorknobs) makes a contribution to our collective need for beauty and efficiency in our environments. Or serving coffee at a diner contributes to people’s opportunities to come together in conversation and community. The accounting clerk who processes payments at the university is contributing to students’ learning and paving the way for them to reach their goals. Companies who can develop a strong purpose, but also help people see how they contribute to it, will reap the greatest rewards in terms of employees who provide discretionary effort and wake up energized for their day.
While a strong purpose can work to motivate and engage, it can also help people choose and clarify their investments of time and effort. Years ago, I worked with Helen who was morally opposed to an industry our company was serving. She asked to opt out of working on those accounts. We accommodated her and she was able to contribute brilliantly to other accounts while team members who didn’t share her concerns served the other account. Or consider Josie who quit her job at a well-known company because she didn’t agree with what she perceived to be the negative impact they were having on the community. Purpose can help people and companies make choices which ensure the greatest match between values, talents and contributions.
In applying the purpose, there are 4 key actions which matter most:
First, clarify purpose. As an individual or as a company, define your purpose with as much detail and clarity as possible, identifying what differentiates your purpose and what makes your contribution to it unique.
Next, articulate purpose. Whether you’re an individual or a company, write down your purpose and revisit it regularly to keep it fresh. Companies should communicate purpose broadly and regularly—reminding people about why the organisation exists and what they seek to accomplish so people have a line of sight from their work to the importance of the company’s work overall. Organisations can leverage purpose to unify the organisation and galvanize and energize stakeholders.
Then, choose well. Actively use purpose for choice-making. No choice is ideal, but as individuals, we can choose a job or a volunteer effort or a task which is as close as possible to what matters most to us. And we can remind ourselves of how even small, everyday tasks ladder up to something bigger than ourselves. Companies and leaders can use purpose to define strategic choices—where to play and how to win. They can consider purpose as they define their markets, their value propositions and their future plans. And they can use purpose to broaden and solidify their impact.
Finally, stay nimble. Monitor, measure, reevaluate and reassess regularly. Circumstances and context will change, and both individuals and organisations will need to shift and adapt. This is resilience, and it will be important for the future of work generally and the work each of us do.
If you would like us to help develop your organisations purpose with your team then get in touch here.