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Coming to Grips with the Purpose of “Purpose”

In his observations of great and the good at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Financial Times senior editor observed one trend that didn’t receive much notice elsewhere: how to use the term “purpose.”

“As business slowly battles to restore public trust. In making any company more resilient, “the most important thing is to focus on purpose,” said Brian Moynihan, who is wrestling Bank of America into post-crisis shape. “You have to be a purpose-driven organization,” added Mark Weinberger, head of EY, one of the Big Four professional services groups.

Apparently, Kullman asked a contract worker on the production line making Kevlar, the fibre used in bulletproof vests, what he was doing, she got an unexpected response: “We’re saving lives.” The comment underlined her conviction that a sense of purpose was far more effective at hiring, motivating and keeping staff than any corporate brand, vision or mission statement.

But even chief executives differ on precisely what “purpose” is. Hill comments, “If it cannot be expressed easily, I doubt they will make it stick. Yet if it can be boiled down to a general single sentence, to fit the many mundane tasks a company and its staff have to perform, I wonder how it differs from the much-derided, meaningless mission statement (Acme Widget: Meeting the Unmet Needs of Customers Everywhere).

One difference is that whereas chief executives (particularly new chief executives) can change missions and visions on a whim, purpose is far harder to shape. That is an advantage – if you can harness your company to your younger employees’ search for meaning at work, you will gain their loyalty – but also a pitfall. For one thing, as young employees grow up, their reasons for going to work will change. For another, as Asia experts at Davos reminded me, in some faster-growing markets such as China, the imperative for workers to make money easily trumps purpose. If the Kevlar worker had responded, “I’m earning a decent wage to feed my family,” would it have meant he was any less motivated to do a good job?

Hill, like many outside observers of mission statements, is a bit cynical, particularly when these statements emit “a whiff of the sacred,” and quickly become sanctimonious. “Precisely because purpose is important to workers and customers, they will be quick to punish executives who appear to diverge from its path.”

He cites the study by academics Sandra Cha and Amy Edmondson who looked at an advertising agency that styled itself a maverick in its field. “They were surprised to discover that the same employees who had joined the company for its idealistic set of values were highly critical of its boss because they believed he was not living up to them. One reason was that the staff were interpreting the group’s purpose slightly differently – and more broadly – than the chief executive intended; the researchers called it “value expansion.”

One lesson is that even if purpose is more powerful than the old motivational methods, CEOs need a good explanation to hand when corporate reality clashes with the high-sounding values to which their staff are committed.

Hill notes wryly that, “as Kullman points out: “We had a vision and a mission and nobody understood what they were.” But the appearance of purpose in Davos-speak is a warning to executives that it could suffer the same fate, hollowed of meaning by a combination of overuse, abuse, breach of corporate promise and general cynicism.”



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