The purpose gap: between the stated and the understood
Purpose. It’s a major buzzword right now for good reason. The majority of organizations today are experiencing a crisis of purpose. Gallup found that 87% of employees worldwide are disengaged in their jobs. The level of disengagement is thought to cost UK companies alone 340 billion GBP annually. Young people are leaving their jobs at unprecedented rates, staying only two years on average.
Purpose is a vague concept. But for this article, let’s call purpose the “why” behind the work that an individual and a company does. In most organizations, the people know their “what” – the strategy – and have an articulated “how” – their leader capabilities, what needs to be done to achieve their goals – but many don’t have a clear “why” behind the work they do. And if they have a stated “why” – a purpose, a mission statement, a vision – people often don’t feel connected to it. It feels more like corporate propaganda than a meaningful reason to do the work.
Most executives agree that purpose is important; 89% say that an organization with a shared purpose will have higher employee satisfaction. Despite this, only 39% say that their purpose is clearly articulated and understood in the organization, as noted in EY’s “A Business Case for Purpose.”
Addressing the purpose gap, the “why”
The gap between stated and understood purpose is what companies need to define for each and every one of their employees. The “what” and the “how” of most work is meaningless without the “why,” and helping people connect their personal purpose with the organization’s purpose is a powerful tool in building engagement and community. If you have been watching Simon Sinek, then you’re probably familiar with this concept and the importance of starting with the “why,” and then leading out to the “what” and the “how.”
Bridging the gap between the stated and the understood in terms of the organization’s purpose is not as simple as “cascading the message,” because this runs the risk of coming across as corporate propaganda. As one manager at a Global 500 company said, “Purpose is corporate BS intended to make us feel better about the terrible work we do.” Yikes.
Instead, organizations need to approach purpose with the intention of discovering each person’s individual fire, what lights them up, and clarify the “why” behind the work they do. Then leaders can help their people discover ways to use their gifts in the unique context of their organization’s direction. The outcome of this type of intervention is that people are clearer on who they are and what they want to bring to the people around them, thereby becoming a catalyst for change inside the organization.
This type of intervention works at all levels. For example, targeting high potential individual contributor experts that a company believes will create the future of their business can lead to measurable impact resulting in higher engagement, more passionate employees, and a stronger drive towards change and innovation.
How does this purpose-based intervention work?
The following is an example of one type of such intervention that we have seen work for organizations in the past.
Taking employees on a journey is essential to uncovering who they are – their strengths, their values, their past experiences – and using this insight to guide where they want to go, given the context of the organization’s direction and purpose. This situation can be likened to a person on a boat, with strengths as the oars, values as the compass, and experience as the map. People can use their strengths, values, and experiences to propel themselves in the right direction, both personally and professionally.
The catalyst for change in any organization is a “burning platform,” which means an intense desire and need for change, because people only change through inspiration or desperation. To incite change, leaders need to provide their people with an understanding that shifts need to be made. The spark might be an inspirational executive speaking about the future of the organization, or a dramatic description of a dystopian future combined with a pre-mortem on how to prevent that future. Straight facts or instructions are not enough – people need to really feel inspiration or desperation.
If they feel this, your people will leave the “burning platform,” or catalytic event, acknowledging the need for change. They will see the challenge ahead in the organization and want to rise to meet it.
Once people have a clear understanding of the future state of their organization, it is essential to make purpose personal – and dive into who they are. Assessing the strengths of each individual, of their team, and of the organization are the essential first steps in accomplishing this. The team needs to understand that “no one person is as smart as all of us together.” Then, it is important to think about the ecosystem of the organization and identify where there is a need to partner people with others who have complementary strengths, both on a personal level and on an organizational level.
Next, move from strengths, which tend to be “above the surface” recognizable traits, to values that are often “below the surface” and are the subconscious drivers of behavior. This brings awareness to the values people hold so that they can make conscious choices, explain their rationale, and connect more clearly with others. Discussion of how an individual’s values and the organization’s values overlap are key to creating resonance and uncovering where potential friction points may be.
Next, consider what has shaped the individuals, such as their past successes and set-backs. It is important to listen on a variety of levels – head, heart, and intuition – in order to attune to their values, strengths, and what seems to be important to them. Storytelling can become quite powerful and moving, and helps the group gain an understanding of where they came from and the factors that have shaped who they are.
At this point, the past has been thoroughly excavated. The next step is implementing a form of “presencing” to bring people’s awareness into the moment, either through meditation, a short walk, or stretches. The goal of the “presencing” is to create space for your people to let go of what they think they know and open their minds for new insights.
Then it’s time to move into the future. Now it is essential to ask: what do you stand for? What is so critical to you that you’d fight for it? Who do you need to become to do that?
Recognizing this is critical, because purpose happens in context. Like leadership, purpose is unique to the place and environment the person is in. Purpose happens when the needs of the people you serve – patients, customers, partners, team members – meet the gifts you have to offer them.
Throughout this process, your people create a collective vision of the future of their company, guided by the perspectives of different stakeholders they serve. Executives can join to give input, but ultimately your people need to feel ownership over the vision they are creating, not be told the vision from the top-down. This collective vision needs to be shared and widely publicized to serve as guidance for the context that your people are co-creating.
Finally, this is where your people can identify their unique area of contribution – how can they bring who they are to help co-create this vision? Writing this answer down and tying it to the collective vision, allows everyone see where each person in your organization is making an impact and adding value.
After this experience, your people should collaborate with the people they work closely with to catalyze the change. This includes their manager, peers, and teammates. This support group of team members provides guidance, accountability, and support to create this change.