The decisions and behaviors of an organization must be grounded in purpose.

John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods and author of Conscious Leadership) heralds purpose-rich business environments, noting that strong values provide “clarity of direction in decision-making.” In a world whose pace is ever-quickening, Mackey acknowledges that it is easy to be swayed by quarterly profits. Good leaders, he says, recognize that “purpose and pragmatism must thrive under the same roof.”

A leader who has done the work of identifying and sharing his purpose with his team will be ahead of the game in most scenarios. Clarity of purpose is especially handy in regard to accountability and behavior change. To understand why, leaders might consider the “thoughtful partier” allegory:

It’s getting late at a party where everyone is drinking and having a great time. If a well-intended voice abruptly shuts off the music to scold the group, what will happen? Many will hiss, boo, grab a drink and go on dancing. Brian from accounting might end up with a lampshade on his head. The guidance, however well-intended, will be ineffective.

However, if a leader follows the 3 keys to infuse their management with purpose, they will stand a better chance of convincing the crew to call cabs.

3 Keys to Integrating Purpose

The 3 keys to infusing purpose into operations are Identify, Clarify, and Remind.

An organization’s purpose, values, and expected behaviors should be identified as early as possible. Purpose should serve as an anchor concept: strong and clear to all, never allowing operations to drift very far. Team members should be reminded of shared purpose early and often.

Management by re-connecting one to an organization’s shared purpose can be wildly effective. The allegorical “partier” might only need to be reminded of an important meeting the next day for their behavior and decisions to snap back into place. A deeply entrenched purpose decreases the need for micromanagement. In this case, a leader can provide helpful reminders of purpose instead of shutting down the party with a heavy hand.

For high level leaders and high-quality teams, this is an obvious component of successful culture. Often, it happens organically. More often, it is a deliberate process. Most often, it is a combination of organic and intentional growth.

The Only Way?

Purpose is a more potent fuel than the prospect of punishment, right?

Not so fast. If speed is important, then direct management (which can include situationally-appropriate repercussions) is often effective.

For example, a parent watching their child scale a fence at the zoo to pet the resting lions should be stopped immediately and with whatever intensity is needed. Only later should their purpose (safety, health, keeping all their limbs) be explicated and aligned with behaviors that do or do not map on to those outcomes. Ideally, the parent would have addressed this beforehand. But unforeseen challenges are an expectation in parenting and in business.

Businesses, team, and organizations of all kinds regularly find themselves in these positions. They wish they could access Mackey’s “clarity of direction” when they find themselves in the thick of things, but that’s not always the case. And when it comes to behavior management, sometimes fast is best.

It could be the hunger of a lion, or the hunger of a sales rep.

If the sales rep is low on energy, a Snickers will do the job much faster than a healthier option. The most efficient low-energy remedy might be a cheap, fast, and delicious option. But if the purpose of lifelong health has been established, then the Snickers is contradictory.

Here’s where being a leader gets really tricky. Every now and then, a healthy person eats a Snickers.

Although a parent might not want to yell, they might have to in order to protect their child from harm. An employee aiming at lifelong health might need a Snickers bar to avoid low blood sugar and the resulting cascade of bad decisions.

The behavior is a decision; for a decision to be thoughtful, the goal must be clear. Alignment of the two can be a challenge, especially considering the evolving and complicated nature of the human condition. Suffice to say that whatever the decision may be, the decision-maker must answer a simple question: does my behavior match my goal?

Start with Purpose

What are we all doing here? We’re a team, but what are we aiming for? Other than a paycheck, why am I sacrificing my time for this company?

“We sell cars” is not a purpose, it’s a task. Leaders, solve that problem. Get clear on your company’s purpose, and connect it with the purpose of your people. Not sure what their professional purpose might be? Ask.

The leader must toggle between immediate behavior change (which can seem tough and even harsh) and long-term cultural wellness. They will shut down the party when necessary, but gently remind the party-goers of their shared purpose, where possible.

Identify your purpose, clarify it regularly, and find exciting ways to remind your people of why you’re working together. A leader’s job is never easy. That’s what we signed up for.

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