Bring Your Purpose To LifeJuly 10, 2018
Leaders today are inundated with the idea of purpose at work. In fact, many businesses are attempting to guide themselves by an overarching reason for being, the true north otherwise known as the purpose or why of the organization. The articulation of such ideas is very helpful to employees and other stakeholders, because it often captures and express a given organization’s identity.
Besides this, when an organization articulates its purpose, it begins to create a consistency in its strategy, which, in turn, helps to motivate the workforce. We also know, from studies performed by the likes of Boston Consulting Group and others, that clarity of purpose, throughout the organization, has a positive impact on employee performance.
So, it should come as no surprise that almost every organization has accepted the practice of stating their purpose, whether as part of a broader corporate strategy or simply as a better brand message.
However, while defining and communicating your organizational purpose is one thing, getting your teams to understand and live its meaning [daily] is quite another. For a purpose to be truly effective, it must come to life by becoming part of the employee’s own value system. As Professor Robert Simons of Harvard said, “We all have a deep need to contribute – to devote time and energy to worthwhile endeavors. But companies often make it difficult for employees to understand the larger purpose of their efforts or to see how they can add value in a way that can make a difference. Individuals want to understand the organization’s purpose and how they can contribute, but senior managers must unleash this potential” In this way, purpose should come out of abstraction and become part of the person’s everyday work.
The implications of this are clear: organizations must move beyond mere communication tactics of the purpose and guarantee people experience its essence in the workplace. In other words, a company must create the necessary environment by which the purpose can be internalized by each person. According to research findings about corporate statement internalization, [Marimon, Mas-Machuca, Rey] there are six factors that must be met for purpose to be internalized and come to life within organizations:
Knowledge of the Purpose: Simple as it sounds, “people must have explicit knowledge and clear understanding of the purpose content to the extent that they are able to explain it in their own words.”
Understanding of its importance: One way of accomplishing this is to make the purpose relatable to a greater cause and consistent with a generally accepted values system. “[It] must be accepted as the correct way to think, act and feel [and] resonate with the personal values of the individual.”
Visible commitment from leadership: We have all seen examples of organizations that profess one thing but act completely different. It destroys their credibility. This is equally true for purpose. “In general, people tend to welcome the purpose, but only accept its validity when they see that leadership is committed to walking the talk.”
Visible commitment from peers: This factor is significant because it is the formation of corporate identity. “A purpose represents shared principles and for people to internalize them, they must see the commitment of their co-workers, those with whom they interact regularly.”
Coherence between purpose and practice: Are the day-to-day actions and practices of the organization aligned with the principles and direction set forth by its purpose? This is understandably critical, especially when put to test. “The way a company acts in difficult situations and how this is perceived by its stakeholders is essential to [its credibility].”
Reflect and recall: For the purpose to come to life within an organization, there needs to be a means for people to connect to it, personally. A powerful way for personal connection to occur is to ensure that the purpose is in constant reference to the person’s daily activities. This can be accomplished if the company takes intentional steps toward helping make a connection between the person and their purpose.
All of the above factors must be achieved in bringing a purpose to life. Certainly, if one or a few are missed, the organization risks being perceived as inauthentic by its key stakeholders. But the factor of most influence, that which must be present, is that the purpose be aligned with the personal values of the employees – connecting the corporate and personal purpose “in such a way that the employee understands how their work contributes to the impact they want to make in society.” This is crucial and the best way to ensure people take ownership of the purpose and its various mandates.
 Simons, Robert, ”Control in the Age of Empowerment”, Harvard Business Review, March-April 1995.
 Marimon, F.; Mas-Machuca, M.; Rey, C., (2016), “Assessing the internalization of the mission”, Industrial Management & Data System, 116, 170-187.