The Purpose Motive: Why Does Your Organization Exist?

The Purpose Motive: Why Does Your Organization Exist?The cover article in the latest issue of Harvard Business Review focuses on “Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization.” Business school professors Robert Quinn and Anjan Thakor report “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 re-energized. Collaboration increases, learning accelerates, and performance climbs.”

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink writes, “we’re learning that the profit motive, potent though it is, can be an insufficient impetus for both individuals and organizations. An equally powerful source of energy, one we’ve often neglected or dismissed as unrealistic, is what we might call the ‘purpose motive.’”

Research keeps finding that if the main reason for a company’s existence is profit, it’s often less profitable. The dollar sign isn’t a cause. It doesn’t stir the soul. Operating margins and return on investment don’t excite and inspire.

Pushing profits as the primary goal is like taking a set of elaborate architectural drawings for a huge, luxurious dream home in to your team and saying, “If you all work real hard, someday this will be all mine.” Or “if you all work really hard, we can make our shareholders richer.”

Studies of the role and impact of values or ethics on corporate performance show that profits follow from worthy and useful purposes. Fulfilling the purpose comes first, and then the profits follow. Profits are a reward. The size of our reward depends on the value of the service we’ve given others. Developing a purpose aimed at serving others adds a deeper sense of meaning to our lives. It taps into the deep craving we all have to make a difference. We need to feel that the world was in some way a little bit better off for the brief time we passed through it.

Over the years we’ve seen the incredible power of purpose. Here are a few examples:

  • A school bus company: “Carrying our nation’s future.”
  • A financial services company: “Helping our clients build their financial freedom and security.”
  • A municipal public works department: “Building and leaving a legacy for our children and grandchildren.”
  • A mining company: “Stewards of the earth’s resources for the benefit of its people.”
  • International footwear company: “Shoemaker to the world.”
  • Franchisor: “Succeeding with you.”
  • Pharmaceutical company: “Preserving and improving human life.”
  • Hotel company: “Making people away from home feel they are among friends.”
  • Discount retailer: “Making our customers lives better through lower prices, greater selection, and higher value.”
  • Software company: “Enabling people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.”

These statements are just pretty words if they’re not brought alive by strong and effective leaders building powerful cultures anchored around these aspirations. Great leaders, as Simon Sinek, writes in his book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, ” are able to inspire and give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained… those who are inspired are willing to pay a premium or endure inconvenience, even personal suffering. Those who are able to inspire will create a following of people — supporters, voters, customers, workers — who act for the good of the whole not because they have to, but because they want to.”

Tomorrow we publish my June blog posts in the July issue of The Leader Letter. This issue starts with a focus on (purposeful) persuasion power. Do you lead like Joel or Denise? How do you know? You can also read more about the latest conference on Positive Psychology. This new field focuses on flourishing grounded in a sense of meaning and purpose.

Purpose has a major influence on our hardiness and resilience. This was the basis of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning. The book described how he survived the horrors of the Holocaust and outlined his belief that striving to find meaning in our life is the primary and most powerful driving force in humans.

And what do you see in the people you’re leading and coaching? If you’re seeing a flock of turkeys, a purposeful team or organization will never get off the ground.

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