Just what is the purpose of purpose?

Activate! Featuring Chris Teague - 8 mins


Welcome to the third of our Activate! articles, in which we take a look at purpose.

Seen as de-rigueur for businesses seeking to engage and retain the future workforce, we scrutinise the actual purpose of purpose and ask: can employees genuinely share the same aspirations as a corporation or has 'purpose' just become empty branding?

The Search for Meaning

P3 Social Assets-04 The concept of work is changing. The binary transaction that exchanges work for money is being questioned - by employers and employees alike. Research shows that people are increasingly seeking meaning from their work; 90% are willing to earn an average of 23% less over their career in return for greater meaning at work. [4]

In this new world, people are exploring how a role aligns with their own personal attitudes and motivations. The result is a belief amongst businesses that latter day millennials and Generation-Zs will only join a business with a clear 'purpose'. [2]

Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School explains the shift in the relationship between employer and employee: "The old contract looked like this: 'I work to buy stuff that makes me happy'. The new contract will be: 'I work to make me happy'. We have to think about work as the thing (we gain happiness from), not the money you get from it." [2]

But it seems that this shift is evading the attention of some employers. Gratton says: "I don't see many companies realising how profound that change will be." [2]

This is reflected in business leaders paying lip-service to the IDEA of purpose, with only 27% saying they actually help employees to connect their personal purpose to that of the company. [7]

Professor Dan Cable, author of 'Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do', says: "Most leaders agree that employees don't 'get' their organisation's purpose. This is because purpose is personal and emotional. It is often managed poorly by transactional leaders…”[6]

As such, a lot of organisations have reduced the concept of 'purpose' to an extension of their branding - and responsibility for it falls through the cracks somewhere between the board, marketing and internal comms.

People need purpose

P3 Social Assets-05 The need for purpose is a fundamental human characteristic.

Not only do we crave meaning in what we do, psychologists tell us that a lack of purpose makes us susceptible to boredom, anxiety, and depression. [3]

Conversely, having a strong sense of purpose can have a powerful, positive effect.

Having a clear reason to get out of bed every day makes life more focused. The sense of meaningful accomplishment boosts our self-esteem, making us less susceptible to negativity and doubt. Not only does that give us a feeling of achievement, research shows that the feeling of working towards a clear goal increases belief that the goal is achievable. [3]

No surprise then, that the collective sense of shared purpose is considered the most important source of meaning in supportive work cultures. It makes us less self-centred; makes us feel part of something bigger. But still, on average, people say that their work is only half as meaningful as it could be. [1]

This is a huge missed opportunity; research tells us that companies who create an atmosphere of shared purpose see considerable benefits. And we agree. We believe that by activating and harnessing a sense of shared purpose, it can become a transformative force. But how do you create that connection between personal motivation and the profit motive?

And how do you go beyond simply communicating the purpose of the organisation to motivating employees to live and breathe it? This is a consistent challenge we hear from internal comms professionals who are frustrated that excellent engagement scores aren't reflected in improved delivery of their business strategy.

Live activation experiences are a powerful solution. By taking people out of their everyday environment, you can deliver a shared experience that creates excitement, provides a fresh perspective and helps people understand exactly how they contribute to business success. And the ongoing workplace 'buzz' about the experience amplifies its effect.

Making purpose personal

The $64,000 question is: Can businesses genuinely expect people to adopt corporate purpose as their own personal purpose?

Purpose and meaning are increasingly considered the emotional keys to unlock individuals' sense of personal fulfilment. But whose idea of fulfilment is that? It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to consider how the purpose of a business, allied to a strategy decided by the C-Suite, may differ from the personal motivations of those most detached from the decision-making.

P3 Social Assets-07 Indeed, the fact that only 20 percent of senior managers say they are 'passionate about their work' is an indication that deeply-felt purpose doesn't permeate very far down from the boardroom. [5]

Dan Cable recognises the difficulty in instilling purpose in others : "It takes more than motivational talks, lofty speeches or mission statements to spread purpose... purpose is meant to elicit an emotional reaction. Purpose needs to be FELT. You can't just talk about purpose." [6]

For people to feel the difference they can make, you have to bring them together to create shared moments of meaning. I fervently believe that such these moments have to be experienced in person because the presence of others creates a 'collective reality' where everyone feels connected in a common purpose.

I recently witnessed a powerful example of this at a live activation we delivered in Lisbon. Our challenge was to actively engage more than 200 senior leaders of a global organisation in its corporate purpose – to drive better business performance.

Over the four-day event, I saw the mood shift from a cynical, ‘arms folded’ reticence to people enthusiastically throwing themselves into activities that had been carefully constructed to connect their everyday working lives and personal motivations with the organisational purpose. It was an inspirational sight to witness.

Creating connections

P3 Social Assets-06 Working with purpose is an act of commitment that takes consideration and enthusiasm. But to deliver that, people have to FEEL the connection between what they do and what the company wants to achieve.

Experience also tells us that top-down edicts don't engage those responsible for delivering the strategy at ground-level. That’s why I believe that a sense of purpose can’t simply be imposed, it requires consensus and a personal connection across the business.

I strongly believe that, where purpose exists, it has a powerful draw for people. And, while it's a stretch to expect people detached from the decision-making to adopt the purpose of a corporation as their own, people can still feel pride in being associated with that purpose.

And this is where the power of live activation lies. It’s a way to engender that understanding and shared meaning: a way of generating a positive intent amongst employees, whereby they are able to think 'this is a belief that I can get behind and feel happy being associated with'.

How? Because live activations create a unique space to talk about purpose in a way that's understood by everyone. Immersive, hands-on experiences don't only get your message across in a focused, inspiring context, they also give people a deeper understanding of how their individual and collective contributions are instrumental in creating a more purposeful culture.


P3 Social Assets-08 So, what was the purpose of all this?

In their concern for how purpose can boost innovation and brand value, it’s easy for transactional business leaders to reduce this important concept to a purely commercial driver. What they often neglect is how employees see purpose as a human desire to bring meaning to their daily work – and how they interpret the contribution they make. [6]

Indeed, leaders who choose to focus solely on market value will miss out on the opportunity to really transform their businesses by harnessing the values of their people.

To get employees to buy-in to your business purpose you need to ignite their innate desire for meaning and help them explore how that links to the overall business purpose: to provide that vital spark of inspiration and instil pride in the purpose.

Activation shakes people out of their routine. It delivers a shared experience that provides the time, the stimulus and the encouragement to understand how their actions contribute to the bigger picture.

And I see strong evidence from our own work that the result is not just a ‘buzz’ on the day – but a clear shift from passivity to action, with employees actively engaging with their organisation’s purpose and building that into their everyday working lives.

And that in itself is a very worthy purpose.


  1. BetterUp: "Meaning and Purpose at Work" - A. Reece/G. Kellerman/A. Robichaux, 2017
  2. London.edu: 'Most millennials will only work for purpose-driven firms' - (unattributed) March 2018
  3. www.psychologytoday.com: "The Power of Purpose" - Steve Taylor Ph.D, July 2013
  4. Harvard Business Review: “9 out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to do more meaningful work” – S. Achor/A. Reece/G. Kellerman/A. Robichaux, November 2018
  5. Forbes.com: "Debunking Myths About Worker Passion" - S.Denning, October 2014
  6. Harvard Business Review: "Helping Your Team Feel the Purpose in Their Work - Dan Cable October 2019
  7. PWC: “Putting Purpose to Work: A study of purpose in the workplace” - (unattributed) June 2016