The purpose paradox

Anand Narasimhan | Updated on October 05, 2020 Published on October 05, 2020

Understanding motivations becomes even more important in today’s matrixed organisations where reporting lines may not exist or are blurred

Individuals’ motivations may well be ‘beyond the numbers’, but recognising the same can make a direct impact on the balance sheet

‘Purpose’ can be a notoriously vague concept. Unlike science — or, even, finance — which seeks reassurance from ‘hard numbers’ or ‘experimental proofs’, trying to unravel individuals’ motivations — the underlying reason for a given behaviour — can be extremely challenging.

Is it worth the effort? Is knowing ‘why’ people act the way they do really important to businesses? The weight of evidence — and my own experience — confirms the importance of personal motivation — or ‘purpose’ — behind people’s decision-making.

Younger employees, in particular, want to work at companies with an authentic purpose; globally, 70 per cent of millennials expect their employers to focus on societal or mission-driven issues. When it comes to recruitment, for instance, employers who disregard such considerations will be at a competitive disadvantage to those who don’t.

On the macro level, the equation couldn’t be simpler; according to research from Deloitte, companies with a clear, identified purpose enjoy higher productivity and growth rates, along with a more satisfied workforce and lower levels of employee attrition.

The idea of a wider, underlying purpose is even more critical in times of disruption and change, when such principles can represent source of stability and reassurance; not merely to employees, but to clients and investors alike.

Big disruption

Well before the outbreak of Covid-19, the healthcare and pharmaceuticals sector, for instance, was being disrupted from the outside and the inside. Big data and analytics transformed, not merely the speed, but the entire process through which molecules are developed and tested; and this transformation is still in a nascent stage. As technologies such as wearables and the Internet of Things become mainstream, the rate at which molecules can be brought to the market and, even, personalised will increase exponentially.

Taking advantage of such opportunities will require new forms of collaboration, new working relationships — we will have to recruit new types of skills and qualifications, coders will have to work alongside clinical and social scientists, traditional career paths will inevitably make way for new ones.

The reality is that it would be naïve to assume that individuals’ purpose — their personal guiding principles — are consistent over time or, even, rational from a cold, entirely logical, perspective. My experience of management confirms that people’s own purpose can be gloriously individual, encompassing everything from their (often, logical) career aspirations to their (deeply personal) dreams; each element culminating in a set of guiding principles that determine their priorities and life choices.

Share energies, goals

As an employer, we need to acknowledge individuals’ sense of purpose — the motivation and logic driving them forward. A leader’s role is to find those ‘intersections’ where our teams’ sense of purpose cross paths with that of the organisation; this is the point where energies and goals become shared.

Think of those days when you didn’t know how time went by at work as you were energetically pegging away at a task and behold, at the end of the day you still felt fresh. We all have experienced such days. It is important to scratch beneath the surface to understand what was working and what made you feel the way you did. At the end you will most likely conclude that you did what you love, and you love what you did!

As the employee progresses, gains experience, perhaps a family . . . their own sense of purpose evolves; this process is both evident and inevitable. Again, the organisation’s (or leader’s) role is to find, or renew that ‘intersection’ of shared interests and motivations. But, it is not just the leader’s responsibility.

Understanding motivations becomes even more important in today’s matrixed organisations where reporting lines may not exist or are blurred. Peer relationships become very important for agendas to move ahead, and understanding the motivations and purpose of fellow colleagues could be the difference between finishing first on the podium or not.

The concept of purpose is a nuanced, highly subjective one; allowing it to exist as a ball of thread or to use it to string together a set of beautiful pearls is the choice to make.

The writer is Managing Director at Merck Specialties Pvt Ltd

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Published on October 05, 2020