The value of shared purpose in business performance

For SMEs and even larger, growing businesses, the challenge of sustaining business performance whilst generating new leads, managing a brand, building a team and tackling all the changes that come with growth can be all consuming and often fatal. For business leaders who have tried to grow and found a direct, negative impact on business performance, the familiar fundamentals of insufficient cash flow, cumbersome product development and unpredictable market conditions are cited as the cause, but more recent research points to inattention to organisational attributes as a critical inhibitor to continued performance through growth. So, why this is and how do we tackle it?

Every growth stage requires your team to be clear, aligned and motivated to sustain outstanding business performance through the challenge of change. Their ability to preserve what has worked and adapt to something new, whilst maintaining alignment to your company’s vision and goals is critical but is often challenged or threatened through periods of ongoing growth and change. Employee engagement, as it is often labelled, doesn’t come easy. You can find plenty of material that defines a ‘high-performing team’ or ‘employee engagement’ and a quick comparison will provide you with a core set of ingredients. However, as your team grows there are a few organisational attributes that provide the anchor for sustaining high performance. At Blackmore Four we define these as shared purpose, aligned expertise and mutual empowerment. This is the first of a series of articles that first looks at the topic of shared purpose.

The performance of your business relies heavily on the effectiveness of your organisation – ‘an organisation’s ability to meet intended business outcomes in a deliberate way, understanding and making best use of the component parts of the organisation as well as the interactions within it, whilst being prepared and equipped to adapt to the demands of your future’. This definition relies on each member of your team being motivated to contribute to the organisation’s success and, critically, understanding how they contribute and what business success is. Employees who can engage with their work and their working environment are more likely to contribute to an effective organisation if their effort is aligned within and between teams, based on a sense of togetherness and common values that steer the organisation towards ongoing, sustained achievement of shared goals.

The challenge can often be that whilst growing a business, you are likely changing aspects of what you do and how you do it. Those who once had perfect clarity may start to question the meaning of what they are doing and may also have a sense that whatever the purpose you set out with has now changed. You are also likely to be adding new people to the organisation and in ambiguous times they too may find it difficult to see exactly how they fit in. What may have started as absolute clarity will almost certainly be less obvious for most people.

Being clear about purpose can be powerful in countering the ambiguity created by change. Purpose that can be clearly stated and consistently understood is the anchor for team performance as it gives everyone reference from which to make sense of their role.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

What is purpose?

Purpose is now a commonly used term in business vernacular but, despite its popularity, it often remains something opaque or open to significant interpretation. That is largely because our individual purpose is specific to our own circumstances and constraints. It might be defined by family circumstances, about our aspirations for status or a need for choice made available by more time or money. Whatever contributes to defining our own personal purpose, it is without doubt a significant anchor to our decision making and plays a large role in crafting our goals.

Just for clarity in guiding us through these thoughts about purpose, we would identify goals as being much more specific aims and aspirations of a business (or a person) that are often characterised by tangible signs of success or achievement, usually indicating that you are satisfying your purpose (or otherwise). Goals provide a very important basis for our effort, they tend to be objective, factual, non-emotive. Self-determined goals are often a key ingredient for motivation but, as we all know, people are motivated by many different things so it may be short-sighted to assume goals, by themselves, will motivate people to contribute their best efforts regardless of circumstance.

Part of the challenge is in understanding personal purpose and drivers of behaviour but also in providing clear purpose so that people have enough interest in aligning with it so that it also drives their behaviour.

So why do people behave the way they do at work?

In the now often quoted book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink argues the case – and uses pretty convincing theory and research – that motivation is intrinsic and driven by human needs. Those needs are identified as the need for autonomy, the need for mastery and the need for purpose. From here we can take a specific definition of purpose as being ‘the desire to do something that has meaning and is important’.

Beyond this need for meaning and importance, other theories of human motivation point to our need for relatedness (Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory) or affiliation (McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory). The intrinsic human need to interact, be connected to others and have a strong sense of belonging undoubtedly provides a basis of motivation.

The coupling of a need for purpose and a need for relatedness drives our thinking on the power of shared purpose. If you can clearly articulate work that has meaning and importance for the people that you’re asking to conduct that work, AND those people are able to clearly identify that this purpose provides a connection with others and a reason for interacting, then you have a really great opportunity to maximise the performance of your team through change.

Unfortunately, although three quarters of employees surveyed by the CIPD say that they understand the purpose of their organisation, less than one third believed that the purpose was shared through the whole organisation. Sharing purpose can help drive collaboration, especially when coupled with clear goals. If you have tried to work in a team you’ll appreciate that it’s much easier to get the benefits of collaboration if the team members understand what problems they share, what they can do collectively to solve the problems and what common parameters they have to work within to create and implement solutions.

How do you foster shared purpose?

There are FOUR factors that will help develop a shared purpose:

1. Employee Voice. Ensuring people genuinely contribute to shaping but also reviewing how your collective actions are aligned (or otherwise) to your shared purpose. This will ensure it is authentically shared.
2. Language. If people are genuinely engaged with the shared purpose, then the language associated with that purpose must reflect the team that it bonds.
3. Storytelling. A key ingredient for effective leadership, being able to tell stories of how actions align to purpose enable members of your team to personally connect with the meaning and importance of what your business is doing.
4. Challenge. It is important in any team situation that people feel comfortable challenging each other in a constructive and helpful manner. It is vital that members of your team can identify and address action that contradicts your shared purpose.

As with any organisational change, fostering shared purpose takes smart, creative thinking and serious consideration about the shape, size and type of the organisation. Leaders need to help employees understand and relate to it before they can put it into practice and when the organisation spans borders and cultures that’s a bigger and tougher job.

Shared purpose isn’t threatened by new members of a team but is understood by your new colleagues and helps assimilate them into your business environment. Shared purpose isn’t threatened by a change in objectives or goals if these are always set in the context of what is meaningful and important for your business.

Does your team have a compelling shared purpose? People seek purpose but the compulsion of sharing a purpose comes from our innate need to belong and be part of some social structure. Purpose that can be clearly stated and consistently understood is the anchor for team performance as it gives everyone reference from which to make sense of their role.

Blackmore Four are a management consulting company, offering specialist advice and tailored solutions to businesses looking to sustain or improve the effectiveness of their organisation. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisation development needs of your business. We work with ambitious business leaders to achieve outstanding levels of performance through periods of growth or significant change.


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