Purpose is the pursuit of something bigger than ourselves; it’s a cause; a driving force. As Pink rightly says, “The most deeply motivated people— not to mention those who are more productive and satisfied—hitch their desires to a cause larger then themselves.”15 Renowned management guru Gary Hamel challenges management to consider human spirit as a motivational force:
The goals of management are usually described in words like ‘efficiency,’ ‘advantage,’ ‘value,’ ‘superiority,’ ‘focus,’ and ‘differentiation.’ Important as these objectives are, they lack the power to rouse human hearts.16
Business leaders, he goes on to say, “must find ways to infuse mundane business activities with deeper, soul-stirring ideals, such as honor, truth, love, justice, and beauty. Humanize what people say and you may well humanize what they do.”17 It’s in our DNA to seek purpose. This is what Dave and Wendy Ulrich refer to as the why of work and what Simon Sinek covers in his popular book: Start with Why.118
This means leaders explaining the overriding purpose of the tasks, projects, and activities employees are involved in. In practice, when asking someone to complete any type of work—regardless of how routine or trivial it is—the manager should explain the consequences of doing (and not doing) the job well. Managers shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming all employees understand the implications of the work they do; they often don’t.
Let me illustrate the point with a simple example. Even a mundane task, such as sweeping the floor in the production area of a business, can be put into a positive context. The production supervisor points out to the seemingly blase sweeper that the company is hosting an important potential customer after the shift. The company wants to make the very best impression on this important visitor. If the right impression is made—which includes the tidiness on the production floor—it may result in this customer being persuaded to place a significant order of product worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Everyone has a role to play in winning this customer’s business, including the person asked to sweep the floor of the production area. This explanation provides context to what otherwise would appear an insignificant job; that employee then understands the higher purpose than just sweeping the floor.
Imagine for a moment the difference it could make if all business leaders—for every task, big and small—explained the why; what a difference it would make in fostering a higher level of intrinsic employee motivation.
Communicating purpose can be done in a variety of ways. It can involve sharing some positive customer feedback; illustrating how the end-user benefits from the work employees do for them. We don’t consider communicating purpose enough for two main reasons: the extra time it takes and the assumption that the employee already “gets it.” Granted, employees in certain industries, such as the not-for-profit sector, have an easier time appreciating the connection between their work and the tangible results of that work in the community. But with a little thought, an appreciation of its effectiveness, and taking the time to explain the overriding purpose, leaders can make a significant contribution to motivation. This creates the right environment for the employee’s human spirit to be ignited, by explaining the higher purpose of their work.
This brings us to the end of the chapter. Satisfying employees with extrinsic rewards for the work they do is important, but only part of the picture. Better performance comes doubtlessly from involving people in the work itself. There is a widely held management myth that the carrot and stick is the only effective way to stimulate work performance. Striving to capture human spirit in people’s work is often neglected on the grounds it can’t be achieved. Yet it’s a powerful and viable motivator. We’ve covered three ways of doing this: Give people more freedom and the autonomy to make their own decisions about the work they do; provide them with opportunities to grow and develop; and explain the purpose of work. As Pink reminds us, “we have a deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and live a life of purpose.”19
In the next chapter, I want to challenge the belief that a loyal employee is an asset to the business.