Six tips for creating a sense of purpose

This article was written by Hayley Kirton, published in People Management on 3 February 2015

Experts from the London Business School explain how you can get your employees working towards a greater goal.

'Lots of companies think about purpose but most of them don't actually end up delivering it,' said Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School, at the school's recent HR Development Day.

And employers should be concerned as a 2014 study by Gallup found employees who clearly understood their firm's purpose were more likely to be retained. A 2013 survey by Deloitte US discovered that employees who believed their company had a strong sense of purpose were more likely to feel their company was performing well financially.

So, how do you create a sense of purpose in your organisation? PM hears it from the experts.

1. Keep it simple

'When we think about purposes, we think we have to come up with some world-bearing phraseology,' said Birkinshaw.

People Management readers' favourite Google has a straightforward mission statement ('organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful') as does retail giant Zappos ('to provide the best customer service possible').

2. Create Fontainebleau in spring

Richard Jolly, adjunct professor of organisational behaviour, fondly recalled a story often told by the late Professor Sumantra Ghoshal. When Ghoshal travelled to his home town in Kolkata, India, during the summer, the heat and humidity would leave him feeling drained. However, while teaching during the spring at the INSEAD school in Fontainebleau, France, he noticed the forest's crisp air made him feel energised. His point? Employees are not inherently lazy, but a suffocating workplace can leave them feeling lethargic.

3. Be Confident

According to Jolly, the best performing companies all have an air of confidence, but it's something easier said than done. 'In a complex world, one of the ways we simplify it is we become over-confident and under-confident,' he said.

4. Alternative isn't (always) better

After asking several businesses about their managerial processes, Birkinshaw has discovered that most have traditional management models but would like to shift to more alternative models. However, this isn't necessarily ideal.

To illustrate his point, Birkinshaw referenced Hans Monderman, who conducted a 'shared space' experiment Dracten, the Netherlands. Monderman removed most of the town's taffic lights and signals, arguing this would force people to be more careful and considerate drivers. It worked; car accidents in the area dropped significantly.

But, Birkinshaw said, even Monderman admitted such a setup isn't always suitable and sometimes a more orderly system is necessary. 'The right model is a function of the business model,' noted Birkinshaw.

5. Install a counterweight

Getting your staff excited about purpose is one thing; delivering it quite another, especially if you have to consider shareholders' whims, too. Birkinshaw advised that businesses should attach a counterweight to purposes. For example, John Lewis has its partnership council to chairman accountable and the editor of The Guardian newspaper is appointed by the Scott trust, which maintains the newspaper's editorial independence.

6. Be prepared for an endurance test

When a company's  purpose is concerned, fortune favours the brave. 'If you are going to take the concept of purpose seriously, you have to be prepared to stick your neck out,' said Birkinshaw.

Jolly added: 'Everybody makes you feel like you're in a china shop, but it's just not true. Organisations are not china shops. I would argue they are gardens.'

And a pretty robust garden at that. Jolly said: 'If you push through the things you are purposeful about, the things you are passionate about, you won't kill the organisation.'  

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