Zach’s Blog

What is Your Higher Organizational Purpose?

What is your higher organizational purpose?

Recently, I was a part of a working group at a university. The goal: to define faculty, staff, and student expectations of behavior toward one another – a compelling and important task. As the group began brainstorming values of the organization to start coming up with expectations, I asked, “How does all of this help deliver the university’s purpose?”

Cue the awkward silence and subtle eye-rolling.

Then, someone, at a high level of the organization said, laughing a bit, “Don’t we have a mission statement?”

People quickly opened their laptops and pulled out their phones and started searching the institution’s website.

Another added, “Yeah, didn’t we just do the strategic plan? It has to be in there.”

Someone, finally, got the mission statement up on their phone and began an uninspired reading like a grade-school student in a forced out-loud reading exercise.

After reading the mission, the group sort of moved on without a thought, a pause, or a flicker of passion.

This familiar scene demonstrates a problem in modern organizations. If an organization that is charged with educating future leaders of corporations, school districts, and research laboratories isn’t moved by the purpose of the organization in the world, what of the for-profit organizations that most people spend 70 percent of their lives working for?

The head-turning Gallup finding in 2014 that the vast majority of Americans are disengaged in their jobs is just one statistic that highlights the fact that most workers do not like how they spend the vast majority of their lives. This should be disturbing for those who lead organizations and are responsible for their day-to-day environments.

In response to what Gallup has gathered, managers and leaders are scrambling to attract and develop talent (and keep them), change work environments to make people feel better at work, and try to understand the new, younger workforce in an increasingly interconnected world economy.

In all of the reacting, we may be missing something that is far less expensive and pretentious than in-office gyms and bring-your-dog-to-work days: the fundamental need of all human beings to search for and find meaning and purpose in life.

Leaders in organizations need to realize that the human search for meaning and purpose doesn’t just turn off when the ID card opens the door to the office in the morning.

What some have termed as “fluffy” stuff – organizational purpose and shared vision – may be the oxygen of the modern organization.

And by purpose, I do not mean mission and vision statements. These statements are simply, well, statements – words on a paper that describe the purpose.

Hickman and Sorensen, in Leading Organizations stated that a common purpose in an organization “…is a deeply held sense of common destiny, a life course or calling; it is aligned with a mission but resonates profoundly with people’s values and sense of themselves.”

A higher organizational purpose is something more then than a mission – it taps into peoples’ desire for meaning and permeates every behavior and thought in the organization. It is worth committing to, an authentic calling that involves personal visions and inspires self-transcendence.

A higher organizational purpose is worth committing to.

How has your organization changed the world today? Whether you can answer this question or not, the fact is that it has.

A higher organizational purpose has to be more important than the organization itself. Systems theory tells us we are all integral parts of a large, complex and ever-expanding system. That means that your organization not only exists, it exists in and of the world and society.

There is a human being at the end of every supply chain of every organization on this planet. There is no alternative – we all work in human service.

How does your organization contribute to and change human beings’ lives? Your organization is changing lives (whether you choose to think about it or not). How do your employees know?

This human, societal contribution is why your organization exists. As Simon Sinek says in Start with Why:

It is “…why you get out of bed in the morning and why anyone should care.”

Are people really going to work hard to be the best consulting firm in the world or meet a sales goal? Maybe in the short term, but it doesn’t last. Do you help a friend in need so you can be the best friend in the world?

We all want to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. Does your organizational purpose tap into that desire?

A higher organizational purpose is an authentic calling.

When talking with different groups about the importance of a higher purpose, people inevitably tell me, “Oh we have done the mission thing already – we brought someone in to help us do it.”

No one else can tell you why you exist.

A higher organizational purpose does not live in a filing cabinet. It is not something you can buy or something that a consultant can prescribe. It doesn’t just show up once a year in the annual report or on the new hire training binder cover. It is not an advertisement. It is a way of life.

A higher organizational purpose is a calling, a collective destiny and reason for existence that fuses every person that does anything for and with your organization.

It is your recruitment strategy. It is the goal of your talent management program. It is how you motivate people. It is the reason for your compensation structure.

The classic tale of the janitor at NASA personifies the notion of a calling. When John F. Kennedy asked the janitor, scrubbing the floor at the space center during the launch of the Apollo missions, “What do you do?” He calmly replied, “I am putting a man on the moon, Mr. President.”

You can’t imagine this janitor getting out of bed in the morning and saying, “Ugh I don’t want to go to work today and put a man on the moon.”

A sense of why transforms how we do what we do and what you do as an organization will only ever be as good as why you do it.

A shared commitment to a higher organizational purpose, then, is the prerequisite for everything else that happens in the organization.

A higher organizational purpose connects to personal visions.

As Peter Senge profoundly articulated in the systems thinking classic The Fifth Disciplinepeople do not comply with a purpose, they enroll in it. Enrollment means that the person actively chooses to align their own vision for their life with the higher organizational purpose.

This choice involves their whole life up to this point. Therefore, it is critical for leaders to know what moves their people and brings them to life. Why do they get out of bed in the morning? Do you care? And research has soundly demonstrated that people don’t primarily work for money.

How often in interviews or on-boarding programs do we ask, “What is your vision for your life?” or “How does our organization’s purpose connect with your personal vision for your life?”

By creating the space and environments to encourage the building of peoples’ personal visions at each level of the organization people will begin seeing their own lives and voices in the purpose of the organization. The result is shared commitment and a shared destiny. The organizational purpose becomes their purpose and not a slickly worded statement on the cubicle wall.

“Organizations intent on building shared visions continually encourage members to develop personal visions. If people don’t have their own vision, all they can do is “sign up” for someone else’s. The result is compliance, never commitment.” – Peter Senge

A higher organizational purpose inspires self-transcendence.

A higher organizational purpose that is worthy of commitment, an authentic calling, and connects with personal visions inspires self-transcendence, the most important effect of a higher organizational purpose on employees and perhaps the most powerful concept in human psychology.

A basic psychological premise is that behavior must be oriented toward some object.  Many theories of human behavior conceptualize that object as being intrinsic or inherent to oneself (i.e. pleasure, survival). However, some psychologists proposed that the object that orients the behavior can exist outside oneself.

Self-transcendence refers to behaviors whose object lies outside of one-self.

Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, in Man’s Search for Meaning said it better than I ever could:

“…I have termed this constitutive characteristic ‘the self-transcendence of human existence.’ It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

The actualization of the people in your organization and the organization itself, then, is only a side effect of the relentless, shared pursuit of a higher organizational purpose.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap