Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Purpose is permission

In the many arenas I play in - work, community, family, civic society, etc. - I always seem to reach consensus with peers that defining purpose in an organization is important. In some organizations, like not-for-profits, defining purpose is even expected.

There are many reasons to define a purpose, such as:

  • It provides focus - by clearly defining purpose organizations can focus their efforts on what really matters to them
  • It is empowering - employees feel more engaged when they feel like they are working for a purpose
  • It aids recruiting - by championing a specific purpose, employees (and probably customers too) can self-select more easily into your organization's ecosystem. Recruits show up to you and are more likely to stay if they are pre-disposed to support your purpose
  • It builds brand - I'll defer to my marketing friends on this one...but if you have a clear purpose it probably helps you be distinctive in the marketplace?
Moreover, based on my observations of the organizational world, organizations with bold exclamations of purpose which appeal to loftier aspirations than shareholder value and operations excellence usually have better results on all the levers I've listed above. I'd also posit, however, that aspirational gives employees implicit permission to unleash their potential - which is awesome.

Let me explain.

In organizations, lots of people don't ever bring all their skills and talents to their work...not because they don't want to, because they can't. They're subdued by their organization's culture or by fear of reprimand. Given the choice, people often opt for lesser-risk activities and behaviors. They believe they have to "follow protocol" to get something done. They have to please their bosses and don't want to "step on their colleagues toes". Because they've been taught to value perceptions in the workplace, employees don't give it their all - they can't because they're suppressed by organizational norms.

So, here's the cool thing about aspirational purpose, it gives employees orders from a higher authority, if you will, that supersedes oppressive organizational norms. By conveying a loftier, aspirational purpose, it provides political cover to employees who want to do something different to achieve that purpose (assuming they are sincere in their efforts). If someone questions employees' unorthodox behavior (which bucks the convention of the organization) those employees can point to the purpose of the organization as justification for their behavior. If the organization's leadership truly values the organization's aspirational purpose, achieving that purpose is tremendously important and they are probably more likely to let unorthodox behavior slide.  In effect, to employees who are truly motivated by the organization's aspirational purpose that purpose is freeing - the higher purpose gives them implicit permission to break cultural norms to achieve it.

How an organization defines and truly embraces aspirational purpose is the topic of another post, I think. That's a huge question that has intense impacts on life in that organization.