Is purpose a vibrant force that drives why and how you do things in your organization? Are you meeting the growing expectations from your customers, your people, and your investors to do valued work that serves the wider community?     

When you have a sense of purpose at work, you understand that what you do or create is useful and contributes in some way to others or the world around you. It’s about feeling connected to something bigger than yourself. When the purpose is central to what you do you’re more likely to keep your people, attract and engage your customers, and increase your returns to shareholders tenfold. However, a recent study found that while nearly eighty percent of leaders believe that purpose is central to their success, only a third believe it is used to guide decision-making processes. How can this be turned around?

“We each have an underlying need and desire for purpose in our lives,” said Zach Mercurio from Colorado State University when I interviewed him recently. “And this common search for purpose that really makes us human is coming to the forefront in how we structure organizational life.”

Zach suggests that as being connected to your purpose can be one of the most compelling motivators of behaviors and attitudes it can act as an invisible leader in organizations. When you have a firm sense of the unique contribution you make to others and embed it within your daily tasks, you become more engaged and more productive in your work. And this isn’t because someone is telling you how to be, but because you deeply want to perform at your optimal level.

How does this work?

Research suggests that being focused on the impact that your contribution makes to others can trigger the release of serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine in your brain. This happiness boosting trifecta of neurotransmitters can improve your physical and psychological health, helping you feel better, be better and do better.

How do you lead with purpose?

You may be making the mistake of thinking that creating purpose is a one-time exercise to come up with a set of statements about what your organization does. However, the purpose is a process, that’s much more than just crafting words. It’s also about finding ways to live and honor this purpose and make space for it to grow and change.

Zach advises that there are four main phases in the process of crafting your purpose. Firstly, you need to ask questions to discover the unique contribution and value you and your organization make. Secondly, you need to clarify your purpose through your language and culture. Research indicates that just stating a purpose yields no financial return or improved performance, and it’s only when the purpose is clear and present in everyday work life can it make a difference. Thirdly, it’s about finding ways to align your decisions and actions with your purpose. And finally, it’s delivering on your purpose.  

You need to be authentic throughout this process. Let’s face it, with today’s technology and rapid communication means, if your organization is not being authentic in the stories you tell, and chances are others will notice. So if you’re whywashing – the equivalent of green-washing in regard to purpose –by using purpose simply as a branding tagline or an espoused value that is not followed through with, you not only risk harming your business but also undermining the psychological wellbeing of your people.  

“A focus on the contribution you’re making comes first,” said Zach. “And if you focus on that you can trust the results will follow.”

How can you be authentic in your purpose?

Zach shares four ways you can authentically lead with purpose.

  • Make purpose your invisible leader – what would it look like if your organization’s purpose was the boss of decision making? When decisions are truly aligned you go to your founding story, your “why”, and your contribution and ask: “What would our purpose have to say about this?” So rather than be distracted by competition or the market, make a deliberate choice to focus on long-term sustainable impact and results built on a foundation of contribution and purpose. Consider what your decisions would look like – would they be different? As a leader, you can try mapping out how decisions are made in your organization. And at a team level, you can do this alignment through team chartering, where everyone is very clear on purpose and have the autotomy live out this purpose.
  • Focus on your end-user – ensure that the people who are at the end of your work, your end contribution, remain central to your role. Regularly share within your team stories of impact and stories of how your work mattered. Hearing a five-minute story about how your service or products benefit others’ lives can be powerful. And when it comes to on-boarding before you teach people what to do and how to do it, you need to show them vividly why the work matters. You need to inspire, and then give the abilities, as a skill without motivation to use it is relatively useless. 
  • Encourage purpose – as a leader invite your people to reflect on and state their own purpose in their jobs. You can ask them to reflect on how and why they do their work, by firstly asking what strengths they use, secondly what energizes them, and thirdly what kind of impact do they make? Then encourage them to develop a purpose statement based on this. Also look for ways you can create an environment where people can see how their work contributes to the bigger whole.
  • Envision purpose – develop this vision with yourself or your team by asking what it would feel like if you were consistently living and delivering on your purpose. List these emotions down on paper. Then consider if you feel this way who would you have to be, and list these ‘being’ qualities in a second column. For example, if you want to feel fulfilled, you would need to be appreciative. A final column is the doing column where you list the actual behaviors that you would have to exhibit to put those values into action. This can then become your professional development plan or your team’s development plan.

What can you do to help your people tap into their purpose?