Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | Creating a purpose-driven organization

In the standard paradigm, we find a self-perpetuating cycle that undermines the organization

Which workplace model creates better outcomes? In the standard paradigm, managers assume employees are work-averse, implementing control systems they assume will ensure work gets done. However, there is an alternative view. In that model, leaders create a transcendent view of the organization among employees. They envision a higher purpose, rising above the usual business goals, affecting decisions big and small.

In the standard paradigm, we find a self-perpetuating cycle that undermines the organization. The manager’s image of a work-resistant labour force creates systems of control, which creates resistance among employees and reconfirms the initial assumptions of the manager.

Instead, we outline eight steps toward a purpose-driven organization, embracing the value of an authentic organizational higher purpose. Our objective here is to help managers challenge conventional assumptions.

Envision an inspired workforce: The standard economist’s view is that employees perform only because they’re monitored or incentivized. This assumes inspiring employees with a higher purpose is impossible. Evidence suggests otherwise. Consider the example from The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, recounted in a 2017 Forbes article.

On their arrival, a husband and wife are crestfallen to discover they’d left the wife’s clothes in Pittsburgh several hours away. A long time staff member pulled up the company car, requested the couple’s address and house keys, drove eight hours, and returned in time for their 9 p.m. dinner reservation. When we coach executives to inspire others, we tell them to find that one positive example—a person, a team, a unit that exceeded the norms. Look for excellence, examine the purpose that drives the excellence, and then imagine it imbuing your entire workforce.

Discover the purpose: You cannot invent higher purpose in an organization; it already exists. We recall working with a global oil company that spent months researching and articulating a purpose and a set of values with documents typically plastered to workplace walls.

What they produced had no power. They had used only their heads to invent a higher purpose. They had not captured employees’ hearts. To do this, you must feel and understand the deepest common needs of your workforce. You must ask provocative questions, listen, and reflect.

Be authentic: Even leaders who don’t believe in higher purpose face pressure from stakeholders to articulate one, leading to vacuous statements that cause more harm than good. But genuine sacrifices made by leaders in the interest of the organization’s higher purpose can be transformative. Consider what the Tata Group did for employees who died in terrorist attacks in the Taj hotel and other Mumbai locations, or the behaviour of hotel employees who took bullets to save customers. These examples illustrate how an authentic organizational higher purpose connects with employee behaviour.

Never stop building: When you think you’re finished building a purpose-driven organization, employees are just hearing the message. This work is not a project to be started and finished. When a leader communicates purpose authentically—and constantly—employees take notice, begin to believe in the purpose themselves, and reorient.

Stimulate individual learning: Conventional theories forget learning and development are powerful incentives. Employees want to think, learn, and grow.

Consider the St. Louis-based non-profit, The Mission Continues, which rehabilitates and reintegrates wounded and disabled war veterans into society. The organization shows faith in its new hires by assigning huge workloads, making the job an incubator for learning and development. Every fortnight, employees write about their purpose, their strengths, and their development. This process strengthens employees’ understanding of the organization’s higher purpose.

Enlist mid-level managers: Unlike most organizations, KPMG, a Big Four accounting cooperative, has successfully built an inspired, committed workforce by turning middle managers into purpose-driven leaders. Too often, large organizations create an environment in which employees at all levels play it safe, limiting themselves to incremental improvements. KPMG’s senior management pushed for real change, exploring purpose through a programme to “inspire confidence and empower change". The firm invested in a new kind of training, in which the partners learned to tell compelling stories that conveyed their sense of personal identity and professional purpose.

Connect people to purpose: What about front-line employees? Can you connect company purpose with day-to-day work? This requires dialogue, not a top-down mandate. If employees drive the process, purpose will better infuse the culture, influencing behaviour long after managers leave.

Unleash positive energizers: Every organization has a “network of positive energizers". They inspire. They take initiative. They’re trusted. We advise senior leaders to enlist these energizers in designing and executing an organizational change. They are willing to tell the truth and openly challenge assumptions. Research shows an authentic higher purpose, clearly communicated, improves both operating performance and forward-looking measures of performance like stock prices and returns.

Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakora are, receptively, professor emeritus of organization behaviuor, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and John E. Simon professor of finance, Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis.

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