Purpose. How organizations and people can complement each other


What makes us go to work — quick answer? Money. The logic is as impeccable as it is inescapable. We have needs — for food, heat and shelter, for internet and Netflix box sets. These things cost money, so we have to sell our time.

So far so good. If we were rational beings, homines economici, and money was the reason we work, we would of course do no more than the bare minimum in return for our wages. That kinda makes sense: in economic transactions, we tend to sacrifice the least possible in return for what we obtain. We don’t typically give the butcher another fiver over and above the price of our pork chops, and the butcher doesn’t typically throw in an extra chop, free of charge.

You could take a similar perspective about organizations. Why do they exist and do what they do? Commercial organizations provide goods or services to customers, in order to make a profit for the owners — much like people give their time and effort in return for a salary. Public institutions or non-profit organizations are not looking for a financial profit, but have other external performance expectations and targets, which fulfil a role similar to that of shareholder dividends.

This perspective on both individual and organizational motivation is very transactional and, let’s be honest, a bit simplistic. Not many people and organizations actually function like this. Most people and organizations make trade-offs that are more complicated than this. Yet we seem to pay a lot of attention to these transactional aspects.

But It’s Not That Simple, Really

So what more trade-offs, other than time or effort for money can we see? Let’s look at how we, as individuals, might do things over and above the bare minimum needed to earn our keep (and not lose our job).

Imagine a colleague asks us for help, and we drop what we’re doing to respond. You could argue that there is an ulterior, material motive: perhaps we do so because we are building up relational capital that means they will help us in the future. But we don’t really know for certain that they will reciprocate, so in any case, helping others for nothing tangible in return goes beyond the transactional domain. When we put in extra effort to help a colleague, that feels good, and if it means that in the future they act on our call for help, that is more like an added bonus.

Many of us also take pride in our work. We could submit a document without proofreading it, and with typos and unnecessary repetitions left in. Will that get us fired? Most likely not. A flawless document rarely even means that the person receiving it would be able to do their job better. It hardly makes any material difference… Yet we put extra effort into making sure that it’s the best possible document we can produce. And that feels good. Even if it then also helps us grow a reputation of a dedicated person with an eye for detail, that too is an added bonus, and not the main reason.

Can organizations similarly transcend the lowly transactional domain? Consider an employer doing more than simply paying workers the minimum wage needed to keep them. Think of benefits in kind like free coffee, a pleasant working environment, even sacrificing organizational capacity — through dedicating the time of certain employees or through paying consultants — into developing a positive work culture. Is there an ulterior, material motive behind this all? After all, it helps attract the best candidates, supports staff retention and may well boost productivity too. But it’s rare for there to be a cool and considered business case based on just financial or material costs and benefits of doing so. It’s more a case of ‘doing the right thing’ — which is like the organizational equivalent of ‘a good feeling’.

So there’s more to working — as a person or as an organization — than minimizing costs and maximizing revenue. But what we’ve just seen is really just a case of tweaking the boundary conditions. When we work to earn money, of course it’s nicer if we and our colleagues help each other out, and if we find pleasure in doing a good job. But we hardly go to work in order to help colleagues out or in order to generate pride in our work. The same applies to organizations. They must generate a profit or meet performance targets, and of course it’s good in its own right of they can do so while having a good reputation as an employer. But they’re not in business in order to create a pleasant work environment and a positive culture.

The Missing Bit

What is missing in this picture is purpose.

Most of us (going out on a limb here, anyone with robust evidence to the contrary, please leave a comment! :-), deep down, have a desire to make the world a better place, not just for ourselves, but also for others. We have a purpose which is bigger than just doing the bare minimum, and serving just our own individual, narrow purpose. (80,000 hours analysed 60 studies on job satisfaction. Their advice for a fulfilling career: “Do what contributes to the world”.)

Some of people feel this urge really strongly, and are not deterred by risk or practical constraints — they start their own company, or they go and volunteer for Médecins Sans Frontières. But it is not because others are not so eager to gamble with their wealth and health, or because their ambitions are a bit more modest, that they don’t have a purpose. Providing people with a solid, good-looking kitchen table, a reliable car, tasty and healthy paté or neatly-papered walls, or solving people’s problems with opening a bank account, returning a misdelivered item or applying for housing benefit… it all makes for a better world than mediocre or poor variants of these and more.

Shouldn’t that be the purpose of the organizations in which these people work, rather than for the people? For sure. “The Business Case for Purpose”, a report from Harvard Business Review Analytical Services, found that more than 80% of senior managers and executives believe purpose matters for employee satisfaction and customer loyalty. But only 46% thought their company has a strong sense of purpose.


But there is a real opportunity in combining the sense of purpose of an organization and the sense of purpose of the individuals it comprises. That means more than just communicating the organization’s mission, and hoping that workers will get it and be motivated by its rousing words.

Individuals and organization can help each other in a mutually beneficial two-way process, helping them both develop, refine and clarify their purposes. This in itself encourages alignment — not through repackaging or fudging the meaning of words, but because the connection is made at the deeper level. If you can align around a common desire to contribute to a better world, then the detail is likely to take care of itself. Furthermore,

The purpose of the organization and the purpose of the individual can be woven together. But before the two can be fused together, we need to let go of the unthinking assumption that people and businesses, in general, are driven by material gain (and non-profits by targets). In the absence of a clear purpose, that thought is unfortunately what dominates.

Let us be clearer about what our true purpose is — as individuals, and as leaders in the organizations where we work. As soon as we do this, the whole motivational tradeoff can change. And then the real magic can begin.


This post was written by Koen Smets and Paul Thoresen. It appeared originally on Medium.com.

Koen Smets

Koen Smets

Koen Smets is an accidental behavioural economist, who works as an organization development specialist. He uses elements from both orthodox microeconomics and behavioural economics to bring about behavioural change. He is on Twitter as @koenfucius.

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