Dan Pink has become well known with his research concluding that purpose, in the sense of achieving a greater social good, is a huge motivator of employees. And Simon Sinek’s popular Ted Talk says we should focus on the “why” of our business rather than the “what” because customers are motivated to purchase and employees are motivated to perform based on your answer to why you do what you do. But does every business leader’s answer to “why” make a good purpose?
I once worked for a large trucking company that had a practice of sharing profits with employees through a generous bonus structure. There were three major divisions, and I remember one occasion where all employees were invited to hear the three leaders speak. They all covered the normal rhetoric on their strategy and financials, but their differentiation was in their explanation of why employees should be motivated. The first leader tried to pump us up by saying “let’s all work really hard and take home big bonus checks”. His words fell flat. The second one said “if we work really hard we’ll be rewarded with financial security”. He didn’t get too much reaction. The third said “I want everyone in this company (most of whom were blue collar truckers) to experience the American dream”. When he said this, you could feel the energy in the room shift. He evoked deep emotion in us, most of whom have ancestors who left their homes and came to this country (USA) sparked by a dream for a better life. We were ready to bend over backwards to help this guy be successful.
All three leaders used the same theme of financial rewards for employees, but only one hit the mark. And this is, of course, only one theme that can be inspirational. What is the key?
Defining a powerful purpose reminds me of the Five Whys used in process improvement. With this technique, you ask why a problem occurred, and when you get an answer, you ask why that occurred. You keep going until you get to the root cause of the problem. Using this technique in getting to a meaningful purpose, continue to ask why until you feel the answer in your heart. Why are big bonus checks important, because they provide some financial satisfaction. Why is financial satisfaction important, because it’s key to the American dream. When your answer strikes heartfelt emotion, you have arrived.
When a leader feels heartfelt emotion about a purpose, the emotion is infectious in the organization. Positive, heartfelt emotion does more than just inspire greater performance. It also creates an environment in which employees are sharper and more creative.
As elementary as this may sound, in order for leaders to arrive at a purpose that inspires the heart, the person doing the asking has to be able to detect heartfelt emotion. Lots of business people stay stuck in their heads and can’t do this. If you’re one of these people, become more aware of your heart by imagining your breath flowing into and out of your heart region. For most people, this will eventually evoke a warm tingling in the area of the heart. It’s this same tingling warmth that will be activated by an inspiring purpose.
It’s important to understand that when a particular purpose strikes the heart of one person, it doesn’t necessarily strike the heart of everyone. The Vice Chairman of Philip Morris, the large tobacco company, said in 1979, “I love cigarettes. It’s one of the things that makes life really worth living.” This formed the core of the company’s purpose, and sparked them to be the leader in their industry for many decades. Lots of people would say this purpose doesn’t resonate with their heart, yet it worked for Philip Morris. Of course, if they had used the Five Whys, they may have reached a deeper purpose such as “to help preserve personal freedom of choice” that would have resonated with even more people.
As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.Share