Zach’s Blog

The 5 Sins of ‘Whywashing:’ How to Stop Misusing Purpose

Purpose is the new green. And just like sustainability was marred by “greenwashing,” purpose is at the cusp of being diluted by what I call whywashing.

Purpose’s psychological power to inspire and compel is clear. But just like anything inherently good, humans will find a way to misuse it for quick material gain.

We can learn from what big business did to sustainability in the 2000s. Like purpose, being “green” was a key value for both consumers and employees. Taking care of the world we live in? It was a no-brainer, a universal truth.

The same is true for the desire to connect to a bigger purpose beyond profit. Seventy-five years of psychological research tells us that money simply doesn’t compel human beings for the long-term. People have a desire to be connected with something bigger.

The “green” social movement was an instant and easy branding strategy for organizations. The problem is they used the public’s desire to do good to manipulate. This mass manipulation often showed up through shallow and deceptive marketing tactics.

The result was the rise of “greenwashing.”

Greenwashing describes the misuse of sustainability to present a positive public image. In 2007 the marketing firm TerraChoice evaluated the sustainable claims of 1,118 products. It found all but one were committing what they called the “sins” of greenwashing. These sins ranged from offering no proof and being too vague to outright lying.

Now we’re watching the next social movement: The rise of purpose. With it comes what I call the risk of “whywashing” – the use of a purpose beyond profit solely to enhance the public image of a business.

[bctt tweet=”Purpose should benefit people, not the bottom line.” username=”ZachMercurio”]

Here are the five sins of whywashing and how to avoid them.

The 5 Sins of Whywashing

1. The sin of purposeful branding without purposeful behavior is committed when a company adopts a purpose-beyond-profit branding strategy but does not align every aspect of its operations and behaviors with that purpose.

It’s when a company like Wells Fargo touts (and trademarks) a “culture of caring” for others yet rewards self-serving sales goals as a measure for success.

[bctt tweet=”No one cares why you exist unless you prove it every day.” username=”ZachMercurio”]

Purposeful organizations determine their success by how their purpose is delivered, or proven, in the world.

Can every person, at any level of your organization, know and feel why you exist after every physical or digital interaction?

That is the standard of a purposeful enterprise.

2. The sin of recruiting for purpose but managing for results is committed when new employees, mostly Millennials, are lured into an organization with the promise of a culture of purpose but once in the cubicle are evaluated solely by results.

The rise of the beanbag chairs, ping pong tables, and slides in the office as recruitment and retention strategies are symptoms of this sin.

If your flashy and emotional digitial marketing says you exist to “better people’s lives” but you drive new hires into the ground with 80-hour workweeks so they can “prove themselves,” then you are not a purposeful business.

3. The sin of dropping purpose when times get tough is committed when market conditions aren’t favorable and decisions that contradict purpose are made out of fear.

An example of the opposite was when Southwest Airlines was pressured from investors and consultants to start charging for bags with allegations they were leaving upwards of $300 million per year on the table.

CEO Gary Kelly, reflecting on the original purpose of the company, said that they would not charge for bags because it violated the reason the company was founded: “To democratize the skies.”

He instructed his leadership team to find the money so they didn’t have to charge for bags. The team also believed in the purpose, so much so that even the toughest financial times didn’t sway their decision.

Not only did Southwest decide not to charge for bags, they created the very public and well-known “Bags Fly Free” campaign which ended up driving $1 billion of new revenue and taking even more market share.

Are your decisions rooted in purpose even when times are tough?

4. The sin of focusing on white-collar purpose is committed when companies focus only on connecting white-collar employees to its purpose.

Over 58% of the U.S. workforce are lower wage service workers often residing in Fortune 500 distribution centers and factories.

When I work with organizations on adopting purposeful behavior, I start on the distribution center floor.

The search for meaning and purpose is fundamentally human. And every person, starting at the bottom of the organization, must be emotionally connected to why the organization exists on the planet. They must see their role as crucial to delivering the purpose beyond productivity and profit.

Do the people who touch your products or services last know and feel the organization’s purpose? Do they know where the product goes? Do they know they make a compelling difference in human beings’ lives?

Or do you think they “are just there for the paycheck?”

5. The sin of no proof is committed when the purpose of the company is not experienced through policies and procedures.

Patagonia offers an example of what proving purpose actually looks like. Being purposeful starts with putting your money where your purpose is.

Part of Patagonia’s purpose is to “…cause no unnecessary harm…” And that purpose is proven in daily employee life, even in addressing the potential harm caused to working families from a lack of affordable child care. This is why Patagonia has provided onsite daycare and nursery services since the early 1980s.

And the results have been not surprising: 100% of the women who have had children at Patagonia over the past five years have returned to work, significantly higher than the 79% average in the U.S.

Purpose in organizations and life isn’t always pretty or cheap. And if it is, you might be whywashing.

Purpose takes hard work, strategy, and tough decisions. Often these decisions sacrifice material gain in the short term for an unwavering alignment with the reason you and your organization exists.

This piece is an adapted excerpt from Zach’s book, “The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose.”

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