Throwing a spanner in the purpose works

Written by
Bruce Daisley

01 Mar 2020

01 Mar 2020 • by Bruce Daisley

Purpose needs to be more than a tokenistic endeavour if it’s really going to stick, writes former EMEA vice-president of Twitter Bruce Daisley, author of The Joy of Work

These days, there’s a lot of talk about organisational purpose. I accept that it sounds powerful and motivating. But hang on a minute. What if one of the outcomes of something becoming well known is its misappropriation by the baddies? 

For example, there is some evidence that discussions about emotional intelligence (EQ) have particularly benefited psychopaths. Books on EQ give people with a personality disorder a clear pattern of behaviour that they can emulate in order to get on in life. Could talking too much about organisational purpose give bad firms the vernacular to look progressive? 

Evidence for the power of purpose

Of course, there’s good evidence for the power of purpose. Workplace psychologist and Wharton School professor Adam Grant earned his status as the ‘wizard of the workplace’ by researching the impact of purpose on people. He argues that where people gain a visceral sense of why they’re doing something, it has a demonstrable positive influence. For example, he showed that a five-minute meeting with beneficiaries motivated university fundraisers to increase their weekly productivity by 400%. 

The learning from this has been adapted to all our jobs. It’s why we’re increasingly implored to explain why we do what we do. If we can connect (ourselves and our people) with the why – the purpose – motivation will follow. 

The challenge is that we then find ourselves back at our jobs. Real events take over. Emails fly around; meetings clog up the week. The ‘purpose’ we wanted to cascade to our teams seems vague and distant. 

At some point, business leaders recall that they need to connect their team with their purpose. The boss allocates someone to cover off the purpose stuff. Soon enough the head of HR, or that talented new recruit in marketing, has made a short video. It looks okay, their kids liked it. It’s the story of someone, a real person, using the product, or benefiting from the money they make from it, surrounded by their tight-knit (ethnically balanced) group of friends. To support the Purpose Video, photographs and mission statements are stuck up on walls in the main meeting spaces. 

Anodyne sloganeering

And then it doesn’t achieve anything. People still look drained; staff turnover remains ahead of the market. People start muttering “the video wasn’t that good”. Because purpose doesn’t work like that. Purpose isn’t contained in an email that we scroll through; it’s what motivates some of us to work evenings to pay our way through college, or to fundraise for people with whom we’ve made an emotional connection. 

Maybe it makes me subversive to throw a spanner in the purpose works. But I’m actually looking at what the research says. Time and time again, it warns that anodyne sloganeering is exactly the sort of purpose initiative that fails. Purpose needs to feel personal, emotional and vivid — which makes it very hard to run at scale across a company. 

The lesson for all of us is that purpose is immensely powerful when it’s individual or delivered at a team level. Empowering teams to develop and foster their own cultures is a crucial way of bringing this to life. 


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