What is the difference between businesses that succeed or fail? Is it about market conditions? Access to capital? People? After over 700 hours of research and talking to hundreds of organisations it was clear to me that many businesses operate like a machine, with each person, team and department working as a cog within a larger mechanism. And that has created soulless organisations where people work with little understanding of why they do what they do.
The thing that separates great organisations from the others is purpose. While many people pursue happiness at work, that’s a flawed goal. The real aims are purpose and meaning.
Through my interactions with a client over nine months, I ran an experiment. I collected happiness data every single day to see if there was a correlation between happiness and performance. After a while, as I start learning more, I figured out that happiness was not the thing. Meaning, or purpose, was more important. That realisation launched into 700 hours of research.
I explored meaning and purpose from different angles. This is the concept of consilience – explaining a phenomenon using several different fields of science. I looked at meaning and purpose on the philosophical spectrum, the psychological aspect and from scientific perspectives.
I call this the psychosociology of purpose.
In Greek mythology, the cruel Greek king Sisyphus was punished by the Gods. He was doomed to roll a heavy rock up a hill only for it to roll back down over and over. He was cursed to repeat that toil for all eternity. In many businesses, work can feel like that – a fruitless labour that exists only for itself. We derive no happiness from it. Yet, in successful organisations, there are many unpleasant and difficult tasks that people do while remaining highly satisfied.
The philosophies of thinkers such as Camus, Nietzsche and others boils down to a simple idea; life is suffering and without a structure of meaning and purpose that suffering is pointless.
What turns work from a chore from which we derive no satisfaction to one we enjoy? When we asked our staff through an internal survey, we learned that our internal purpose was not clear. We had a team of people, who like Sisyphus, were doing work without understanding the real purpose.
When you look at the psychological aspect, something that’s important is the state of flow. When you work on something that is very challenging and you have skills and ability, you can get yourself in that state of flow. In this state, people describe a sense of fulfilment and meaning. But this needs to be an aim or challenge that will take you out of your comfort zone and increase your skills.
There’s also a neurological element to this. Our limbic system, fuelled by the hormone dopamine, orients us as we move from one point to another. When we want something, it’s the limbic system that drives us to achieve that goal. As we reach milestones and eventually our aim dopamine is released into our brains fuelling positive emotions. In fact, this activates the same centres in the brain as some highly addictive euphoria-inducing drugs.
When we look at the philosophical, psychological and biological data, taking a consilience-based approach, we learn that purpose is a far greater motivator on positive performance than the pursuit of happiness.
The pursuit of meaning, not happiness, is powerful. It’s a massive lever that organisations can pull – but very few do. Most prefer the carrot and stick approach of KPls aligned to goals such as sales and budgets rather than a higher purpose.
When everyone shares a common purpose, they are doing something for the greater good. But defining that purpose and making it clear so that everyone understands it is challenging. Eventually, my research led me to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their purpose is perfectly clear: “All Lives Have Equal Value – we are impatient optimists working to reduce inequity.” That overarching purpose is supported by four specific aims. That model for describing the common purpose and how it will be achieved drives all the activities of that foundation.
Where they led me was to the idea of expeditions – high level beliefs that are a part of a purpose that is shared by everyone in the business. Through consultation within the business, we developed two main expeditions. We design resilient systems that are self-evolving, self-healing and self-governing. The second expedition is about creating developmental cultures. One is thinking about systems. The other is thinking about humans. That doesn’t mean other activities such as making sales or achieving budgets aren’t important. But they are not the reason we do things. They are simply an outcome of journeying on our expeditions.
People at different levels can create evolving systems that are helping people to grow. Because we believe that human potential is constrained. Challenging limiting beliefs brings people together to see things from a different perspective. It lets them connect with their hearts and do amazing things.
Marcio Sete is a management consultant and principal consultant at Elabor8 who specialise in agile consulting and work with 25% of the ASX 50 and leading Australian brands.