How do leaders inject a higher purpose into their organization—something that will propel the team to its greatest version of itself with motivation and a common sense of destiny? What can I do to get them more interested in their work? These questions were tackled in this month’s Harvard Business Review. In their article “Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization,” authors Robert Quinn and Anjan Thakor provide some keen insights indicating that it might be the approach and not your people:
“That’s a hard truth to recognize. If, like many executives, you’re applying conventional economic logic, you view your employees as self-interested agents and design your organizational practices and culture accordingly, and that hasn’t paid off as you’d hoped. So you now face a choice: You can double down on that approach, on the assumption that you just need more or stricter controls to achieve the desired impact. Or you can align the organization with an authentic higher purpose that intersects with your business interests and helps guide your decisions. If you succeed in doing the latter, your people will try new things, move into deep learning, take risks, and make surprising contributions.”
One of the key concepts in their writing is that you just can’t fabricate a higher purpose or cause; it has to be authentic and be “felt” by the employees. They must learn to rely on their own honest interpretation of the purpose, and not just what you tell them. Leaders can help by reframing what the real, “purpose,” benefit is that the company brings to the community. For example an electric utility isn’t simply supplying power, it’s keeping people alive with that power. It’s an amazing responsibility. Once that feeling is internalized, the entire organization sees their collective motivation enhanced, thus creating empowerment that is driven by the heart, not only the paycheck. The authors state: “We have come to see that when an authentic purpose permeates business strategy and decision making, the personal good and the collective good become one. Positive peer pressure kicks in, and employees are reenergized. Collaboration increases, learning accelerates, and performance climbs.”
How to Step Up to a Higher Purpose
Changing the perspective of what motivates an employee is one of the first steps needed to get a collective appreciation and support for a higher purpose-driven organization. The framework developed by the authors enables you to overcome the largest barrier to embracing purpose—the cynical “transactional” view of employee motivation—by following these eight essential steps:
1. Envision an inspired workforce.
Imagine what a purpose driven company would be like. How would the employees take ownership and responsibility without being coerced? “If you can find one positive example—a person, a team, a unit that exceeds the norms—you can inspire others. Look for excellence, examine the purpose that drives the excellence, and then imagine it imbuing your entire workforce.”
2. Discover the purpose.
Many mission and vision statements lack “heart.” They are intellectualized and are often bland, and most do not reflect a higher purpose. “But you do not invent a higher purpose; it already exists. You can discover it through empathy—by feeling and understanding the deepest common needs of your workforce. That involves asking provocative questions, listening, and reflecting.”
3. Recognize the need for authenticity.
“When a company announces its purpose and values but the words don’t govern the behavior of senior leadership, they ring hollow. Everyone recognizes the hypocrisy, and employees become more cynical. The process does harm.” However, finding one’s higher calling through empathy allows leaders to observe authentic values that support the purpose. That’s something you can build from.
4. Turn the authentic message into a constant message.
Once the core values are identified, a consistent and constant message will reinforce the purpose. “When a leader communicates the purpose with authenticity and constancy, employees recognize his or her commitment, begin to believe in the purpose themselves, and reorient. The change is signaled from the top, and then it unfolds from the bottom.”
5. Stimulate individual learning.
“Conventional economic logic tends to rely on external motivators. As leaders embrace higher purpose, however, they recognize that learning and development are powerful incentives. Employees actually want to think, learn, and grow.” Leaders that provide opportunity for their workforce to learn and grow perpetuate the common cause and higher purpose mindset.
6. Turn mid-level managers into purpose-driven leaders.
Building on inspiration and purpose is easiest when it comes from the roots of the organization–the middle managers that not only lead, but work side by side with their workforce. It’s a great spawning platform for new ideas to take shape. Here’s an example from authors Quinn and Thakor:
“Consider KPMG, a Big Four accounting cooperative with thousands of partners. For decades those partners approached leadership like accounting. They were careful in their observations, exact in their assessments, and cautious about their decisions, because that was the cultural tone set at the top. Senior leaders were not inclined to get emotional about ideals, and neither were the partners. As a result, employees at all levels tended to make only safe, incremental improvements.
But then KPMG went through a transformation. The company began to explore the notion of purpose. Searching its history, its leaders were surprised to find that it had made many significant contributions to major world events. After conducting and analyzing hundreds of employee interviews, they concluded that KPMG’s purpose was to help clients ‘inspire confidence and empower change.’
Today the partners communicate their personal purpose to their teams and discuss how it links to their professional lives and the organization’s reason for being. In doing so, they are modeling a vulnerability and authenticity that no one had previously expected to see at the middle levels of this accounting firm.”
7. Connect the people to the purpose.
This next step is critical to the sustainability of the purpose. “Once leaders at the top and in the middle have internalized the organization’s purpose, they must help frontline employees see how it connects with their day-to-day tasks. But a top-down mandate does not work. Employees need to help drive this process, because then the purpose is more likely to permeate the culture, shaping behavior even when managers aren’t right there to watch how people are handling things.”
8. Unleash the positive energizers.
Find the people that want to take initiative and let them run with it. “Every organization has a pool of change agents that usually goes untapped. We refer to this pool as the network of positive energizers. They naturally inspire others. They’re open and willing to take initiative. Once enlisted, they can assist with every step of the cultural change. These people are easy to identify, and others trust them.”
Turning Ideas into Reality
Today’s new workforce not only wants, but expects to have their companies give back and inspire them (see previous blog article on Millennials).
“So purpose is not just a lofty ideal; it has practical implications for your company’s financial health and competitiveness. People who find meaning in their work don’t hoard their energy and dedication. They give them freely, defying conventional economic assumptions about self-interest. They grow rather than stagnate. They do more—and they do it better. By tapping into that power, you can transform an entire organization.”