In the same way that a pure profit motive divorced from a greater purpose leads to unhealthy organizational practices, so does working solely for a paycheck at an individual level. We have seen time and again how poorly people perform when all they care about – or all they have left to care about – is the paycheck at the end of the week.
When people have nothing deeper than a financial reward to engage them in their work, they are usually uninspired to contribute more than the minimal amount required to get paid or keep their job. Instead of focusing on how to make the world a better place through their work, they begin to focus on how to avoid unpleasant tasks, how many months they have left until retirement, or how to make their résumé look better to get a higher paying job.
One of the most significant reasons for articulating organizational purpose is that it allows individuals to connect their personal purpose to the organization’s purpose. Organizational purpose should motivate staff and inspire individual action. Ultimately, we want people to engage with their work because their own why connects with the organization’s why.
Individual engagement with the why of an organization provides meaning to people’s work and brings a sense of connection and happiness. As Tony Hsieh writes in his book Delivering Happiness, “The combination of physical synchrony with other humans and being part of something bigger than oneself (and thus losing momentarily a sense of self) leads to a greater sense of happiness.”2 One of our survey participants wrote about their connection to their organization’s purpose in this way: “My organization has a positive purpose. That counts for an awful lot. This is the only place I have ever worked where I feel no qualms about supporting the aims of this organization through my efforts.”
When people are considering whether or not to work for an organization, they are frequently drawn to the mission of the organization because they want to be a part of something that aligns with their own sense of purpose. At ACHIEVE, we didn’t specifically set out to attract great employees by articulating our organizational purpose, but we soon learned we were doing just that.
Over the past few years, we have noticed that when we conduct job interviews, many candidates mention that they were drawn to our organization by the way we describe our purpose and beliefs. When people connect with our purpose from the outset, they are more likely to be a natural fit within our workplace and reinforce the culture we want.
We don’t want employees to have to guess about why their work matters or what the aim of their work is on a day-to-day basis. When a new employee starts, we intentionally discuss the purpose of their work as it relates to their team and the organization as a whole. In their first week on the job, we have new employees sit with someone from every department to learn how their colleagues’ roles connect with their own work and the organization’s mission. Then, at our three-month review and every annual goal-setting meeting thereafter, we discuss this reflection question as it relates to their role: “How are you contributing to our organization’s purpose?”
As leaders, we should lead by example and know how our individual purpose connects to our organization’s purpose. In their HBR article “From Purpose to Impact,” Nick Craig and Scott A. Snook state that “fewer than 20 percent of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose. Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement.”3 Although some leaders may know their organization’s purpose, it is crucial that they are able to connect it to their own personal purpose as well. It is only after we make this connection for ourselves that we are able to help our employees do the same.
As a leader, you can use the following questions for your own personal reflection and to assist your staff:
- What is important to you about the work you do? This question helps individuals reflect on how they personally value their own work. Invariably, it also leads people to consider their impact on the world around them.
- What would be lost for your clients and/or colleagues if you weren’t here to do your work? This question elicits reflection about the value and relevance of an individual’s work, particularly as it relates to the people they work with or serve.
- How are you positively contributing to the work of your team or the organization as a whole? Just as we want teams to consider how they contribute to the organization, we also want individuals to think about what they have to offer. This moves their attention away from personal benefits and self-interest toward the ways in which they make a positive difference.
When having these conversations with staff, leaders should also offer their own perspectives, as they may see additional ways in which an individual’s work matters. In our discussions about individual purpose, we should seek to create alignment with organizational purpose. As we align individual purpose with the purpose of both the team and the organization, we prepare our organization to perform at a level where people are inspired. This propels our organization toward reaching our goals and fulfilling our mission.