Viktor Frankl, the Austrian Psychiatrist (and concentration camp survivor) wrote 39 books. His best seller, Man’s Search for Meaning, was written in nine days about his time in the camp and has been hailed by the US Library of Congress as one of the most influential books of all time. It fosters the idea that all humans are looking for meaning, we are looking for a sense of purpose and his ideas work just as well in organisations.
Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose. Viktor Frankl
When organisations are able to convey a sense of purpose to their activities, they can recruit people who align to that purpose, who genuinely want to promote it and who will put their passion and persistence behind it. It makes HR, People Development and Communications far simpler and allows organisational values to be lived and breathed, both inside the company by staff and outside with clients.
This approach comes to the fore in highly complex situations where we have uncertainty and ambiguity. In situations like we find ourselves in right now, we take tentative steps. It can be very difficult to all pull in the same direction. Often in situations like this, organisations fall back into controlling mechanisms; micro managing, not trusting their teams to move in the way they want. This simply causes upset.
Having a clear purpose that everyone is signed up to removes the need for micro-management. Instead it allows for three core psychological concepts to emerge giving everyone in the organisation the opportunity to thrive.
Focusing on values and purpose helps empower people in organisations. It means they don’t need to be told exactly what to do but can be allowed to use their skills and expertise in each area to figure out how to do it. This creates self-responsibility, ownership and commitment. A clear, simple, well understood purpose provides people with a sense of psychological safety. They know those around them have their back, feel safe and so are free to focus on work – all because they are working towards the same purpose. The purpose creates an enduring sense of what is driving the organisation so people have a clear context, can work far more effectively and make necessary decisions. They know what framework they are working within so can feel secure that as long as they follow that direction they can work with some freedom.
In an ideal world the organisation’s purpose is clear from the start. They only employ people who share that purpose. When the purpose work is completed later in an organisation’s lifecycle, or it occurs because of a change in direction, then it needs collective thinking and shared understanding to get everyone to buy into it.
When people feel a strong sense of purpose, and that their work is contributing to something more meaningful, it makes them feel positive and moves them into a reward state. One fascinating piece of research from Adam Grant, Professor of Psychology at Wharton Business School, describes an experiment where they split a university fund-raising team in half. One group spent five minutes with a beneficiary of their fundraising learning about the impact of their work on his life. The other half did not meet a beneficiary. The fund-raising amongst the team that met the beneficiary increased by over 170%. Not just in the following weeks but in the following months. The other group’s fund-raising remained at the same level. This simple act of connecting employees to those who benefit from their work has massive business benefits.
A company without purpose is on a single track. It can move forward, it can often function well, but it is limited in its abilities to grow, to diversify and to change. During a crisis, which is ruled by unfamiliarity and uncertainty, it becomes tempting to bunker down and find a way to do what is already being done but maybe a bit differently. An organisation with a purpose can innovate. They can be agile. They won’t be adapting their products or services to the requirements of the crisis but developing products and services in line with their purpose which will be valuable and required in the crisis. A purpose gives the power to be creative and innovative. It means instead of having to follow a predefined response plan, as long as their behaviours and mindsets are in line with the organisation’s purpose, they can work flexibly to adapt and innovate effectively.
As we embark on a new phase, post-summer, with continued uncertainty, it is a good time to have conversations about purpose – at a team level and at the wider organisational level.
Bringing everyone together (virtually) to reflect, to refine and to refresh the purpose means teams can feel a greater sense of commitment and renewed energy, whilst management can feel more confident about empowering people to get on and do what they need to do to adapt and thrive.