The Power of Purpose – Creating a Truly Engaged Team

Business Insights

Corporate platitudes are everywhere we look. Every business is ‘ethical and sustainable’. Every leadership team delivers ‘honesty and integrity.’ But these aren’t differentiators - they are basic characteristics of human decency. Would any business really go to market boasting that they were unethical, unsustainable, and dishonest, with an industry beating lack of integrity? Of course not. 

That isn’t to say that there is no place for value statements. Quite the opposite, in fact. Few things are as important as a clear statement of what a business stands for, but it must be more than a list of truisms. Hastily drawn-up value statements and CSR manifestos containing vaguely reassuring buzzwords are no longer cutting it. It must be meaningful, unique, and invoke a real sense of Purpose.

The smartest organisations are replacing virtue-signalling with activism. They’re built on substance as well as style. The most talked-about organisations have clear and immediate values that are not only pledged, but actioned.

In their 1994 book “Built to Last,” Jim Collins and Jerry Porras argued that the most successful companies had an “authentic ideology” that is “rigorously acted upon.” They listed 18 companies who epitomised this. Now almost 2 decades later, almost all of these companies are still household names.

But why are these ideologies so important? Because, where they are effective, they bring teams together around a common Purpose. And that is the point - it is in fact Purpose, even more than values or ideologies, that really enhance team unity. It has been noted that teams often perform best in a crisis. This is because the Purpose - often survival - becomes obvious.

But, as Patrick Lencioni asks in his book “Silos, Politics and Turf Wars,” why wait for a crisis?

For many organisations, one of the biggest problems is lack of a shared Purpose. Teams might excel individually but be at odds with other departments. Individuals within teams may be great at their jobs, but somehow not quite gel with each other. Time and again, in companies of all sizes, we see internal conflict, low morale, lethargy, inefficient communication, and poisonous politics leading to disengaged workforces and poor performance. Sadly, these problems are not uncommon, but they can be overcome.

A clear, meaningful, well documented and well communicated Purpose enables everyone to rally behind the same greater objective. Metrics and ‘KPIs’ like revenue and headcount are tactically important but do not always have the power to excite. Ambitious longer-term goals like entering new market sectors or developing disruptive new technologies are much more motivating. But Purpose transcends all of these. Purpose is something to believe in – something to be a part of.

With a clear Purpose, it is easier to define the big strategic goals. With a clear Purpose, those boring metrics can finally have some context. With a clear Purpose, interdepartmental differences can be viewed through a more objective lens.

Of course, every company is unique, and there is rarely a single silver bullet to bring teams together. But establishing a clear Purpose is often the first step towards dramatic improvements in productivity and team unity.

Few employees are really sociopaths. People rarely go to work to deliberately cause trouble and mess things up for their colleagues. But it can feel that way sometimes when one team or individual just cannot rationalise the behaviour of another. This is because they seem to be acting to some other agenda. Their behaviours do not seem to align with the “obvious” objective of the firm.

But what if the objective isn’t so obvious? The problem is that different perceptions are often deeply held, but aren’t always clearly expressed. For one person, the firm’s main objective might simply be profit. For another, it might be being a recognised innovator in the market. For someone else, it could be enhancing the quality and consistency of the current core offering. These are all valid of course, but are not always perfectly symbiotic. When a ground-breaking, innovative project is on the table, which may cost money and divert resource from current projects, there could be quite a difference between the perspectives of persons A, B and C.

Those perspectives are all valuable, and should be shared. But once teams can adopt a shared vision, a shared ideology – a shared Purpose – they can more easily and constructively debate their different perspectives, whilst putting aside the eternal suspicion that their colleagues are working to a fundamentally different agenda.

About the Author

Gordon Rice is an expert in leadership, business transformation, and corporate culture. He has developed highly effective methods for instigating change. Through BlueXi, he helps companies to identify and establish new, more productive ways of working and build positive, lasting cultural change. Learn more about BlueXi’s services here, or contact BlueXi for a free initial consultation.