The notion of purpose has become a slippery slope in the ever-evolving landscape of business. It is supposed to answer the fundamental question, “Why do we exist?”
While this is not a new topic for businesses, it hasn’t diminished in importance with the rapid changes our business world and society face. And, because of this, it feels more and more vital to come to ground on your organizational why.
Historically, purpose was primarily about products, services, and pursuing profits. But in today’s world, purpose extends beyond the balance sheets—it’s about connecting what you do to a higher calling.
Articulating an organizational purpose has transformed from a luxury into an imperative.
The power and allure of purpose is irresistible. Studies by PWC on workplace success, EY on harnessing the power of purpose, and the Purpose Gap by Deloitte, all underscore the far-reaching impact on success that purpose can have. This success transcends financial metrics, encompassing financial performance, confidence, innovation, and employee engagement.
Purpose is no longer a garnish but the entrée itself, a vital ingredient of an organization’s identity and place in the market.
However, here lies the paradox: if organizations embrace a higher purpose merely to ride the coattails of a trend, they’re unlikely to reap its true benefits.
This paradox, aptly termed “The Purpose Paradox,” unveils the notion that purpose genuinely unfurls its instrumental value when it springs from an intrinsic wellspring. Navigating this paradox is the compass guiding us toward fully realizing organizational purpose, especially when brand and culture are integrated.
So, what lies at the core of the Purpose Paradox?
In my work as a brand and culture consultant, I’ve seen that a well-crafted and fully integrated purpose can infuse internal stakeholders with a sense of meaning and provide external stakeholders with a reason to believe in the organization’s mission. However, whether an organization can harmonize these dual objectives hinges on the motivation behind its purpose statement, and how well it operationalizes it.
Conventional management wisdom underscores the importance of aligning company strategies and services with cultural expectations to gain legitimacy and support. Yet, capitulating to the trends du jour carries its own perils.
External management of purpose can engender cynicism and employee disillusionment, a phenomenon we term “purpose washing.” Companies perceived as opportunistic and insincere often face adverse consequences, including declines in stock prices. Pursuing purpose primarily to mollify external pressures and bolster profits from an “outside-in” approach often backfires.
For your purpose to truly flourish, it must emanate authentically from within—an “inside-out” motivation. Authenticity catalyzes accountability and is viewed as indispensable, not a superficial veneer.
The crux of the Purpose Paradox lies in striking a delicate equilibrium between external conformity and internal authenticity. To navigate this intricate balance, I advocate a proactive approach — one that harnesses historical context, shared experiences, and core competencies.
Companies with a rich history of making purpose matter, such as Patagonia and Seventh Generation, possess authenticity deeply rooted in their founders’ ethos and past actions. This historical narrative bolsters credibility by showcasing a consistent commitment to purpose throughout the organization’s journey.
For companies lacking a historical track record of purpose-driven initiatives, the path to authenticity is more challenging yet laden with potential. Authenticity can be fortified by aligning purpose with shared experiences and core competencies.
For instance, Ben & Jerry’s social mission compels them to live their core values and seek in all they do to advance human rights and dignity and support social and economic justice for historically marginalized communities.
Authenticity also thrives when purpose aligns with core competencies, as exemplified by Merck’s mission to improve human health, mirroring its role as a pharmaceutical company.
Ultimately, authentic purpose is woven into the fabric of daily work. When leaders authentically connect their organization’s efforts to a higher purpose, authenticity permeates the organization.
Consider the janitor who, when asked by President Kennedy about his role at NASA, responded, “Putting a man on the moon.” This profound connection between work and higher purpose epitomizes authenticity in action.
Effectively managing the Purpose Paradox necessitates not sidelining external pressures or internal authenticity but actively communicating the primacy of authenticity over conformity.
Surrendering solely to external demands can obscure authenticity, but embracing a higher purpose for its intrinsic worth enhances resonance and legitimacy and unlocks the instrumental value of productivity and profitability.
In an era increasingly defined by purpose-driven organizations, those who deftly navigate the Purpose Paradox are poised to chart a course toward lasting success.
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