Purpose: The Word of 2016
Several years ago I started an annual writing tradition that continues to this day. I think about a word that ought to reflect the coming year, and I pretentiously coin it the “Word of the Year.”
The etymology of purpose is interesting and perhaps important to understand first.
Circa 1300, the Old French word porpos and the Anglo-French word purpos combined with porposer to give us purpose. Whether as an “intention, aim and goal” or “to put forth,” purpose can denote a state of being—a noun—or it creates action as a transitive verb. There might be a purpose to attending a meeting or you may be seeking purpose in the meeting itself.
Put simply, there is a whole lotta purpose to purpose.
The new book, The Purpose Effect, details a three-way relationship between an individual’s personal sense of purpose in life, the organization’s purpose where they are employed and a person’s purpose in their actual role at work. When all three aspects of purpose are properly defined, are well aligned, and function in partnership with one another, then the employee, the organization and society mutually benefit. When they are not, it can lead to significant damage in society and in the organization. Of course it can lead to a whole lotta unfulfilled personal purpose, too. The Purpose Effect is the pattern I have exposed.
If an organization exhibits a high degree of purpose in its mission, objectives and actions—taking a stand to benefit society—there is a good possibility that employees will more easily demonstrate purpose in their roles at work, likely aiding and adding to their own personal sense of purpose in life as well. It is no coincidence that three entities—the organization, society and the employee—greatly benefits when this occurs.
If an individual joins an organization that is in direct conflict with their personal sense of purpose, there is a cogent likelihood they will develop a workplace mindset that is negative, ambivalent, even melancholic. If the role an individual performs provides the opportunity to demonstrate purpose—in alignment with both a personal sense of purpose and that of the organization—there is a very good chance of increased engagement, even fulfillment.
Think of purpose as a three-legged barstool. If one of the legs is broken or uneven, either an individual ends up crashing to the ground or there is a perpetual wobble, prompting a feeling of uneasiness, of disequilibrium. Such a lack of balance in the workplace can result in personal disengagement, disbandment of a team, or in the direst instance, the end of the organization itself.
Those who lack direction in these situations, simply go through the motions, longing for the day when their opinions and ideas mattered, helpless as senior leaders pursue an organizational purpose that has no meaning for them personally. Any lack of alignment between the three categories of purpose—the barstool legs—can have devastating consequences at both an individual and a collective level.
It is amazing to witness—like being the recipient of a ‘pay it forward’ moment for the first time—what happens to your self-confidence when you go above and beyond the call of duty. It’s even more startling impressive how your life begins to flourish when you work extra hard to develop, define and decide your personal purpose. When the organization defines its purpose such that it agrees to serve and benefit all stakeholders—customers, employees, owners, community and the environment—and not just shareholders or power mongers, it becomes a canon of benevolence. When personal, organizational and role purpose become symbiotic, the pro’s outweigh the con’s time and time again.
In 2010, Lindsay Hemric was appalled by the way in which many clothes manufacturers made their products. Sweatshops and environmentally unfriendly practices were the norm. Something had to be done. Lindsay founded Teeki, an activewear firm that does the unthinkable. It takes recycled water bottles, invokes an eco-friendly process that harnesses the fibres from the bottles to then create clothing such as hot pants, tank tops and bell bottoms Teeki commits to a purposeful organizational DNA, serving all stakeholders, while Lindsay has evidently achieved both role and personal purpose. Indeed, as Teeki’s corporate ethos suggests, the company dances to a different beat, stretches with the yogi, runs to the highest peak, and swims where the ocean becomes one, in its pursuit of putting purpose on par with profit.
Purpose can come when you set out to deliver “more” as well. Another example to highlight regarding a firm putting a greater purpose on par with profit is Uncharted Play. Founded by Jessica O. Matthews and Julia Silverman in 2011, Uncharted Play’s mission is to deliver motion-based, off-grid renewable energy (MORE) into “everything that moves.” The company has designed both a soccer ball (called the Soccket) and a jump rope (called the Pulse) that produce energy after a few hours of use. Tellingly, the company believes that the concept of play can be used to prove that:
- Doing good doesn’t need to be boring.
- Anyone, anywhere can be a social inventor.
- If people across the globe can connect and work together to address the issues facing humanity, the future is boundless.
Both Teeki and Uncharted Play (and its purpose-first founders) not only are aligning personal, organizational and role purpose, they are committed to ensuring all stakeholders are being served.
But there are several warning signs related to defining and maintaining purpose, whether personally or organizationally. Many believe achieving purpose in life and at work is something that magically appears, like an epic Cirque du Soleil trick. Others mistakenly argue the concept of purpose is actually owed to them by their boss or organization. Some in senior leadership roles scoff at the thought of an organization delivering a higher sense of purpose to aid society. After all, profit is far more advantageous than purpose, right? Purpose never helped anyone climb the career ladder, did it?
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Purpose does not fall out of the sky.
Purpose is not found in a fortune cookie.
Purpose cannot surface from a wishing well.
Purpose is not owed to anyone.
Purpose will never manifest at a casino roulette table.
Purpose is not an imaginary friend.
Purpose does not harm society.
Purpose does not stunt your career.
Purpose does not spell the end of profits.
Purpose is a verb and a noun. Purpose is for you and the organization. Purpose has a purpose. Purpose is for you, me and everyone else.
In his posthumous 2004 book, Pathways to Bliss, Joseph Campbell provides us with another thought regarding purpose:
What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss. (Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss, 2004. New World Library)
Purpose . . . it is a word that offers the “possibility of bliss.” While purpose in the workplace is imperative, leaders are potentially overlooking its significance to the overarching health of our civilization. My experience and research suggest purpose ought to be the objective, but it is the misalignment of the personal, role and organizational categories of purpose that ensure the journey toward purpose never begins.
This is why “purpose” is my word for 2016.
More to come on May 10, 2016 with the release of The Purpose Effect. I hope you have the chance (and want to) pick up a copy for you and/or members of your team.
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