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Purpose, direction and meaning; three keys to attract success

Susanne Jacobs

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the king of Corinth punished by the god Hades, for his deceit, to an eternity of rolling a boulder up hill to only have it roll back down again. Contributor By Susanne Jacobs, author of Drivers, £14.99, Panoma Press.

Prisoners in the Haidari concentration camp in WWII were put to labour, but not for a productive result. Instead, it was designed to break the prisoners’ morale, making them dig holes only to fill them in again, and build walls to only then break them down.

We need purpose, a sense of meaning and direction in our lives and our work. To go to work every day, feeling connected to a clear purpose, lights up our neural reward circuitry. To be able to answer the ‘why I do’ in relation to the ‘what I do’ boosts self-esteem and engagement. Work with no direction or purpose, feels futile and is often referred to in behavioural economics as the Sisyphic condition after the condemned Greek king. In the face of meaningless effort our energy is sapped and our motivation often broken.

My research identifies direction as one of the drivers[1] of trust and intrinsic motivation and yet the power of purpose, as a critical source of engagement, innovation and performance, is often underestimated in the workplace. Direction and purpose creates a lens through which the world is viewed. Decisions become easier, faster and clearer. Questions such as whether to cut costs, outsource or to pursue a new market are simpler to answer and action if they are aligned to the purpose.

Organisational researchers, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, over the course of a six year study, found that long enduring and highly successful organisations all had a clear purpose that differentiates them and provides a deep and meaningful identity to all employees[2]. Moreover their research shows that organisations driven by purpose outperform the general market by 15:1 and outperform comparison companies 6:1[3]. Think of Walt Disney whose purpose is ‘to bring happiness to millions’, or Wal-Mart’s enduring purpose ‘to give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people’. Clear and unwavering reasons for the existence of these organisations’ work and ultimately their success. Who in your organisation focusses on ensuring all the moving parts are aligned to the core purpose and those carrying out the tasks understand how their contribution supports that purpose?

Purpose, direction and meaning are also necessary for our health. The Blue Zones project, which looks at areas of the world where individuals live measurably longer and healthier lives, lists a sense of purpose as worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.[4]  One of those Blue Zones is Okinawa in Japan where they have the word ‘ikigai’, translated as ‘the reason I get up in the morning’.

We engage when we care about the outcome and understand the part we play, particularly when it is ultimately in the service of others. When university fundraisers met a single student whose scholarship was funded by their work, the concrete link it made between their work and the outcome saw them increase weekly phone minutes by 142% and grew weekly revenue by 400%[5]. And when radiologists saw a patient’s photo included in an x-ray file, they wrote 29% longer reports and made 46% more accurate diagnoses[6].

Purpose, direction and meaning matter. They unite teams through a common reason to collaborate and achieve. Purpose is personal, but when we have it we are engaged, energised and our health and performance are improved. Do you know what your ikigai is?

[1] DRIVERS, Creating Trust and Motivation at Work, Susanne Jacobs. Panoma Press 2017

[2] Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, J. Collins and J.I. Porras, Random House Business Books, first published in 1994

[3] Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, J. Collins and J.I. Porras, Random House Business Books, first published in 1994

[4] Blue Zones, Power 9 accessed 12 July 2016

[5] Impact and the art of motivation maintenance: The effects of contact with beneficiaries on persistence behaviour, Adam M.Grant, E. M Campbell et al, Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, Volume 103, Issue 1, 2007

[6] Patient Photos Spur Radiologist Empathy and Eye for Detail, Dec 2008, RSNA