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Purpose, as most people are aware of, is essential when working in a team. It can improve the quality of work, the efficiency of the team, and the overall satisfaction of the team members.
But there’s often something missing in the discussion of purpose. As much as we praise its virtues, we may overlook some of its critical mechanics: the how and the why.
First, why do we want a strong shared purpose to begin with? If we can answer this question, then we will be able to understand its importance for business.Second, how do we even develop this strong shared purpose? Does a purpose spontaneously generate from a company culture, or is it something that requires leadership and collaboration?Finally, how can this strong shared purpose make a meaningful impact on productivity? Most managers, myself included, want to improve their team’s productivity. How can the team’s purpose benefit the team’s efforts for higher productivity?
Why We Crave a Strong Shared Purpose
Ernest Shackleton was a polar explorer who lived from 1874 to 1922. He is especially known for the Shackleton ad, a startling call for the bravest men to join him on his expedition to Antartica.
This guy was as intense as they come. He was the kind of strong personality who led by example and guided his team through extreme danger. Don’t let his suit and tie in the picture above fool you.
On a wooden ship stuck on the ice? No big deal.
As Shackleton was preparing for an exploratory voyage to the arctic, he purportedly ran an ad in a London newspaper that went like this:
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.
For someone accustomed to the comforts of a modern industrialized environment, those phrases don’t sound particularly inviting — hazardous journey, low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness?
I personally pull on a sweater when the temperature dips below 60 degrees. And don’t get me started on daylight savings time, when it gets dark before supper!
But somehow, someway, there’s something primally alluring about the ad.
Why? Is it that we crave dark days, extreme cold, and the likelihood of dying in the arctic tundra?
No. It’s that we crave purpose and meaning.
Let’s draw this discussion away from the late 1800s and into the here-and-now.
Purpose matters now, just as much as it always has throughout human history. Most humans desire to live their lives in pursuit of something bigger than themselves.
If the greatest motivation in our day is the promise of spending a few evening hours basking in the glow of our 75” 4k Ultra HD television, then we probably lack a greater purpose in life.
How to Develop a Strong Shared Purpose
We can all probably relate to that feeling, that desire for purpose.
When a book like The Purpose-Driven Life is published, we gravitate towards its message. It’s no wonder that the book sold 30 million copies in just five years.
Living life with the absence of purpose is a recipe for discouragement and disillusionment.
Why? Because purpose is one of the most fundamental of all human needs. And it matters for the things that you care about in your job — productivity and success.
Simon Sinek’s famous TED talk makes it plain that business without purpose is fruitless.
His “Golden Circle” model puts the why — that’s purpose — at the very center of life and work.
In any work environment, those who do the work must understand the purpose for which they work.
If your organization lacks purpose, you are essentially telling your workers, “Look, we don’t really care what the business is all about. We care that you are here to fill a desk and do what you’re told.”
Obviously, no sane manager would say such a thing. Such is the effect, however, that lack of purpose has organizationally.
It’s not enough to possess a corporate purpose or mission statement. You must take that purpose and use its power in your daily work. Here’s how:
Purpose should reward teamwork.
A true purpose is one that rewards the team as a whole, not merely high-achieving individual contributors.
It’s true that a guy like the Lone Ranger is cool. He can do things by himself (or with Tonto) that entire organizations could not achieve. Our fascination with heroes like Batman, Superman, or James Bond reflect our penchant for rugged individualism—one man or woman who can bring down malicious governments, save entire civilizations, and make the world a better place.
This belief in the power of individualism—an ingrained Western philosophy—spills over into business, creating catastrophic results for productivity and purpose.
Some businesses are built on a faulty foundation where the soloist, the single overachiever, or the lone ladder climber deserve the rewards.
This kind of environment—individuals clawing their way to the top through grit and determination—is an environment bereft of a collective purpose.
Harvard Business Review contributor Mark Bonchek writes, “It’s hard enough to find a purpose in life if you’re an individual, let alone an entire company.”
Many people find their individual purpose in religious belief or social good. That is valid and worthy. In a work situation, the purpose must be connected to the other members within the organization.
When a purpose requires the contribution of the team as a whole, it inevitably improves collaboration. Much of the discussion of collaboration centers around technology — what tools, software, and SaaS products can provide the best collaboration?
The answer is meh. Tools, software, and SaaS products facilitate team collaboration, but do not produce it. Meaningful collaboration occurs when a team is driven by purpose, and when that purpose requires the involvement of others.
In other words, a shared purpose drives productivity and collaboration.
A business’s purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose or world-changing, but it should be something that the entire business can embrace. That way, the team can work together to achieve goals that no individual could achieve by himself.
A motivation purpose is seldom, if ever, money.
True, money motivates. But is money, even in the form of bonuses or stock options, an ideal form of motivation?
According to motivational research, there are at least five effective ways to motivate team members.
1. Public Recognition
2. Training or coaching
3. Leadership opportunities
5. Importance and optimism
Offering more money in place of a clearer purpose may be counterproductive. Doing so could undermine an organization's ability to help their team rally around purpose.
When your business’s purpose is energizing, the compensation is just an added benefit, not a motivational force.
Purpose requires intense leadership.
It’s easy to think that if you can just find the right purpose, than things will take care of themselves. Employees will find their motivation, productivity will increase, and team members will be fulfilled.
In reality, a truly powerful purpose needs someone to carry that purpose forward — a strong and capable leader.
This doesn’t mean that the leader needs to be a Type-A extrovert who is outspoken about the purpose. Instead, it requires that the leader herself be the one whose actions and decisions are guided by that purpose.
When a leader acts from purpose, the employees will recognize this, and be able to align their own work behavior and contributions with the purpose.
One inspiring example of purpose comes from Sir Ernest Shackleton, the very man who (dubiously) published the inspirational ad in the London newspaper.
This is is an excerpt from his writings:
I am of opinion that we can follow the trend of the southern mountains for a very long way south, before they turn either east or west. Should they turn to the eastward, and we find it impossible to get over them with the ponies, we would pull the sledges ourselves up the nearest available glacier. If no way up the mountains is found, we would continue following them round to the eastward, until we found it necessary to return towards winter quarters. If, on the other hand, the mountains turned to the west, we would continue straight south, and, if the surface were favorable, would increase the distance between our depots to 150 miles to admit of a more extended journey.
The geographical details aren’t important. The tone of his writing is what I want to point out. It’s rooted in purpose, and it’s motivating to the core.
His purpose? To make it to the South Pole.
● If the ponies can’t make it, they’ll drag their sleds over a glacier by hand.
● If they can’t make it over the mountain, they’ll go around it.
● If they can’t get around it one way, they’ll go the other way — 150 more miles in the blood-freezing cold of the south pole.
Somehow, someway, they are going to make it.
This is the kind of purpose-driven leadership that is truly inspiring. A single person could not achieve such a purpose alone. Achievement on that magnitude takes the power of the team, led by a person who believes in the purpose.
How a Strong Shared Purpose Increases Team Productivity
Being productive is a good thing, and I’m a champion for hacks and techniques that can channel your energy and improve your work.
But being productive just for the sake of being productive is completely pointless.
Why? Because such productivity is detached from purpose.
This is precisely where many businesses go wrong. They attempt to improve productivity, but they fail to understand how team productivity increases.
And how does team productivity improve? It improves when the team has a shared purpose.
In a 2014 article, The Guardian published this information, “A growing number of businesses are learning that employee satisfaction and employee productivity go hand-in-hand.”
If your employees aren’t happy, then why would they be productive? This introduces the next logical question — how can you improve employee happiness?
The answer, according to The Guardian, requires purpose: “Employee happiness hinges largely on a sense of purpose.”
According to Aaron Hurst, a CEO interviewed for the article, "I've seen it over and over, what people want from their careers are things that help them boost purpose in their lives.”
Call it happiness, if you want. Whatever it is, it’s rooted in purpose.
Purpose fuels productivity.
Dr. Alan Zimmerman, a corporate consultant, has found this to be true. He stated the point simply in an article: “Purpose leads to productivity.”
My own experience corroborates this truth. I was interested in productivity. I wrote articles on productivity. I boosted my productivity. I became really good at being productive. But then I started asking myself the question, “What’s the whole point of my being productive?”
I didn’t have a satisfactory answer at first. While I was grasping for the core purpose of my hustle, my productivity nosedived. Being productive simply for enjoying a productive high wasn’t going to last. I needed a deeper purpose if I wanted to sustain my productivity.
I finally gained a stronger grasp of my purpose, and it changed the way I viewed productivity. I was able to sustain my productivity, because my effort was tied to purpose.
We all want more productive teams. A productive team can raise profit margins, reduce delays, beat deadlines, and earn more revenue. These are wonderful things that every organization would enjoy more of.
Achieving productivity ,however, is more than a matter of a few smart inbox hacks or time management tools.
Achieving productivity means defining an organization's shared purpose, and finding motivation in that purpose.
Once you do that, your hyper productive team will emerge.