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5 rules for embedding purpose in your organisation

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Like culture, purpose exists within every organisation – the question is: are we consciously engaging with it or is it at best irrelevant or at worst an obstacle to our success? Each individual inside an organisation has a purpose, but have you as a leader been able to ensure that these granular purposes pull together in a corporate direction?

First of all, perhaps it is useful to consider what organisational purpose is. Confusion between mission, vision, values and purpose reigns in the boardroom, meaning that they are often used interchangeably and end up generating a word soup which is hard to make useful.

A mission tells us what it is we do – the business we’re in, the work we do and the clients we serve.

A vision tells us where we are heading and what we look to be in the future.

Values describe our culture and the way we choose to do things and what we believe to be important.

So how about purpose? A purpose is how we articulate why we should care about making our collective efforts a success. It aligns with the mission but drives more deeply into our individual and collective sense of ourselves. It positions us in the context of the world beyond us and illustrates the difference that we can make to those who are not us.

A purpose helps us transcend the transactional aspects of our roles and motivates us by connecting our rational perspectives with our underlying values. More than anything it gives us a reason for acting, connecting and collaborating.

Defining a purpose might be the easy part: it can be more satisfying to create than a mission or vision due to its connection with something bigger than ourselves. There are key elements that it needs to include:

  • It needs to be inspiring and worth the time and energy of those it involves
  • It must take a stand and hold a position reflecting clear principles
  • It should be heartfelt and built for the long-term – not transitory or constructed from platitudes
  • It has to provide guidance as to the choices we make – clarity not vagueness is essential

The harder challenge is to make this purpose live in our organisation. Research undertaken by Dr Gill Hickman and Professor Georgia Sorenson illustrates five critical areas of attention that any leader needs to engage with to make their chosen organisational purpose thrive.

1. Selection and on-boarding of new entrants to the organisation

The adage of “recruiting for attitude, training for skills” is a fundamental truth when looking at embedding purpose. Not only should you pay attention to bringing in people who understand and value the purpose of your organisation, the very manner in which they begin their relationship with you is critical. The on-boarding process must reflect, reiterate and reinforce what you hold to be true – any conflict between espoused and experienced articulations will create cracks of cynicism and doubt which are hard to repair.

2. Fostering collectivity

The structure of an organisation is dependent on individuals fulfilling their roles, but the purpose of an organisation thrives when employees are encouraged to look beyond their own domain. Efforts by leadership to drive individuals to consider the bigger picture that their role contributes to, and development of a broad understanding leads to a greater embedding of purpose in day-to-day perspectives.

3. Providing meaningful work

Work that has “meaning” for an individual does not simply mean “worthy” – rather it is the alignment between someone’s role and their belief system. Meaningful work is by definition purposeful because it imbues a fundamental reason for participating, a route to ownership and a commitment to completion and fulfilment. Routes to alignment may not be obvious – ways of achieving it could include focusing on social aspects such as the shared experience, articulating organisational impact or management tasks such as moving from transactional quantification of an employee’s outputs to another form of measurement. When the meaning behind individual work is linked to the collective purpose, this strengthens the application of organisational purpose in practice.

4. Building strong social bonds and relationships

Strong workplace bonds fuel employee performance, and in return purpose-led workplaces build stronger bonds. In line with the notion of collective performance above, purpose becomes important when we feel closeness to each other but also gives us a reason to build allegiance and social glue. This circularity creates a conscious understanding of purpose and its relevance, creating the conditions for its perpetuation and greater impact on outcomes and outputs.

5. Intentional facilitation of change

Change happens. The constant process of responding to extreme new complexities or simple iterative developments is part of the leadership challenge. Maintaining a sense of intentionality which keeps in mind the espoused purpose of an organisation is essential to ensure that a purpose is embedded and sustained. Grounding the process of change and responses to it in the culture, perspectives and intent of an organisation ensures that the sense of purpose travels with you in the change journey.

Commitment to a purpose is often seen as either a dogma to be policed or too nebulous to be managed. In fact, it is simply the product of a set of leadership decisions and practices which reach across organisation types, sectors and sizes. Embedding purpose across an organisation may feel like a challenge, but as with any leadership task, broken down into its constituent parts it becomes something much more achievable.

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