Do any of us know why we are here?

So, why am I here? What is my purpose in life? Most of us would probably name something to do with work or family, because that is where we find meaning in our lives. I thought my sense of purpose was around making a difference to others. Until I read this article on the Rescuer role in Karpman’s Rescue Drama triangle. I then thought: perhaps I need to start by looking at myself? After all, it’s only by making a difference to myself that I can ever hope to make a difference to others.

What about organisational purpose?

We may find it challenging to explore personal purpose, but looking at organisational purpose means diving into even murkier waters. I asked employees in a recent client to state their company’s purpose. Most told me that they were there to help their customers transform. But the leadership team did not seem to focus on customer transformation. Instead they focused on profit and bottom-line. The CIPD 2010 report “Shared purpose: the golden thread” highlights the fact that profit-focused purposes rarely inspire the workforce. Which is why this organisation had some morale issues.

In the public sector you are more likely to find a different type of purpose. In a recent housing association visit people said that they were there to create settled communities and help tenants to sustain their tenancy. Again, not everyone seemed to live this same purpose, which led to tensions between departments. This lack of shared purpose can create the silo mentality we see in so many organisations; be they private or public sector.

How to we define a purpose?

Edward L. Rowland from The Whole Partnership uses a purpose diamond to explore four different aspects of purpose found in organisations.

First, we have Inherited purpose. This is the founders’ original purpose for the organisation. Systemic theory recognises that an organisation’s history has a strong influence on its present situation.

Second is Articulated purpose. This is what people in the organisation tell you is the purpose.  It could also be the purpose that appears on the website.  In the example above the Articulated purpose is helping customers transform.

Third is Lived purpose. This is what people in the organisation are actually working towards. In the example above the Lived purpose is making the organisation ready to sell.

Finally, there is the True purpose. This purpose represents the best possible potential for the organisation. When an organisation attunes to its true purpose then it can really inspire people, as described here by Sarah Rozenthuler.

Purpose also exists at different levels:

  • macro = organisational
  • meso = departmental or team
  • micro = individual job role

Ideally each activity also has its own sense of purpose, including meetings. Perhaps if we had more clarity around meeting purpose we would spend less time in ones that seem to be a waste of our time.

Ultimately the more we each feel connected to our organisation’s sense of purpose, the more we feel we belong to that organisation. This is a fundamental human need.

The difference a purpose can make

I’ll end with a personal story of the difference the purpose can make. On a workshop a few years ago I nominated adopting two boys as the most significant change project in my life. When asked why I made this change I said that I had wanted to make a difference to a child’s life. Another participant expressed real surprise at my answer. She thought that I would say it was because I wanted a family.

The reality is that, if my purpose for adopting children had been to have a family, then I might well have bailed at some point during the last 20 years. My determination to make a difference kept me going through the darkest, and most challenging times. And a big part of that journey has been delving deep into my own stuff and making a difference to myself. I now feel very privileged and lucky to have made that journey with those two young men. That’s the difference a purpose that comes from the heart and soul can make.