Some industries are well poised to activate their teams around a meaningful purpose that should result in positive outcomes for the organization, for customers, and for employees. Teams can easily imagine the positive impact that their work could create because they have a direct line of sight to the outcomes the organization hopes to achieve — take healthcare or education organizations as examples. You barely have to say anything beyond "we help patients..." or "we help students..." before you have a lineup of interested people waiting to contribute their time and talent. Why is it then, that even in these organizations that have such an obvious and tangible purpose, we are unable to turn it into positive momentum? These teams are just as likely as others to stall out if their work conditions do not allow them to tap into the drive created by purpose.
Finding work purposeful isn't just something that helps people look forward to a day of work. Purpose is one of the three key components of our brain's seeking system, which activates a neurological drive fuelling creativity, productivity, and performance. An altruistic purpose isn't even required to engage it (but I can imagine it helps!)1. On the other end of spectrum, disengaged workers bring only a fraction of their capabilities to work, feeling demotivated, and unable to make an impact for themselves let alone others. Activating the why and fuelling your teams’ purpose makes good business sense.
A hesitancy to engage employees on a more meaningful level exists because of the perception that it will take time and attention away from the burning priorities of the day. In other words, it's treated as a distraction from the important work. Or worse, we get stuck thinking that the pursuit of making work more purposeful should be some reward for gruelling, unappealing, meaningless work that must get done first. Sounds backwards doesn't it? It is.
What if it's the purpose-driven, engaged employees, that get you out of a bind? What if it turns things around for you? Running a purpose-driven organization is not the unattainable reward for getting out of a shitty situation — it's the way out, and the way forward. Even typing this out seems ludicrous to me because it feels so damn obvious. Of course this is what is required, but we still seem to revert back to our ways of piling on to-do's in hopes that the weight of all those tasks open the floodgates to rapid execution and delivery. Teams are burning out, and we're not making the most of the talent we attracted to our cause. It stinks! (Yeah! I get worked up about this!).
We all want to work at an exciting company. The one where you see talented people doing great things, to know we helped create it, foster it, and then see the benefits of it. In healthcare, education, and so many other fields people are already in it because they want to make a difference — and don't we want to leverage that energy so we can make it happen — for them, for us, for our customers? It is rare to see leaders maliciously try to stop people from finding and leveraging purpose (thank goodness), but I truly believe most of us really do operate as if we were intentionally blocking it because we don’t know how to get out of the rut or to engage our employees on a more meaningful level.
If you want people to be fuelled by purpose, where can you start? Fortunately, it is not an impossible task, and the first step is quite simple. It starts with making the time and the space to be deliberate about sharing the motivation behind why you do what you do.
Start simply by asking what your teams want and need to know so that they can be successful. Your teams might not even know what to ask yet, that’s ok. If they don’t, start to speak to some decisions you’ve made in the past week and start explaining your motivations for making those choices. Dig further than “because we have to deliver on this date” – why does the date matter, why does this customer matter, what matters to the customer? You could even invite a customer to have them share directly, in their words, what matters most.
The level of transparency required to initiate and engage in these conversations can be uncomfortable for many leaders. Questions can feel like objections or even mutinous challenges — even though most of the time the intent is to try to understand the context and gather background information. This is what helps activate the purpose – the more you know about what you are tasked to do, the more purpose you can attach to it. The more you practice, the less awkward or confrontational it will seem.
These changes don't happen overnight, but deciding to take action on the first steps can. And it means the change you're aiming for will be that much closer to becoming your reality.
It's worth it.
Carlos Perez is an Alignment Strategist and Coach at Purple Sector Strategy. He helps teams create the conditions to get aligned around a shared purpose through guided workshops and coaching. Book a free consultation to learn more.