When going to work has PURPOSE

Storytelling as a tool for creating value. How do you motivate your employees to go that extra mile at work? How do you get them to commit and take ownership of their job and project? A current trend is to motivate by PURPOSE. Read more about how to create PURPOSE for your employees.

You may have heard the story before. The one about President Kennedy’s short exchange of words with a janitor at Kennedy Space Center at the beginning of the 1960s. Kennedy was visiting the space center and walked past a man who was sweeping the floor in one of the large halls.

“What are you doing?” Kennedy asked. “Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Try making the story about the janitor and the president about your own company. Take a walk through the open office landscape or just pop into the offices and ask people about what they are doing. “I’m copying”, “I’m doing case work”, ‘”I’m moving piles”, “I’m responding to e-mails”, “I’m in a meeting”. Those would be the typical answers.

But just think if they responded: “I’m making it easier to be a Dane”, “I’m making children happy”, “I’m making a difference to my surroundings” or “I’m fighting for a better environment”. Which of the answers would create most motivation? Which of the answers make your employees go that extra mile and give them a sparkle in the eyes? Those that are about PURPOSE. Those that tell us that our work makes sense at a higher level. Not just from day to day, from one job to the next, but in a larger, more valuable and meaningful context.

Storytelling creates purpose

This article is about how you as leader can create PURPOSE for your employees. And let’s start by laying all the cards on the table: It is about investing yourself and telling stories. It is about communicating. PURPOSE motivates people in a different way than pay, bonus schemes, good working conditions and extra holiday. Not that these aspects are not relevant, they certainly are, but they focus more on the individual person’s gain by making an effort than on finding the higher PURPOSE of that person’s efforts. Firstly, creating PURPOSE makes us feel important at an existential and social level; secondly, it creates a unique sense of team spirit in the organization. A strong corporate culture at the overall organizational level as well as in the individual department.

American writer John Coleman has co-authored “Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders”, which describes the how important it is for the modern leaders to communicate PURPOSE in their organizations.

In the book and in a subsequent article in Harvard Business Review, Coleman confirms a trend that is becoming still more common in modern organizations. Namely, that the persona and appearance of the leader plays a significant role when it comes to creating successful companies. Nice CVs will no longer cut it, now you need personality and charisma. And if the leader also has to create PURPOSE, he will need to use storytelling. This does not mean telling stories about knights and dragons, but being able to describe your company and its purpose through narrative.

For many leaders, this does not necessarily come easy. However, it is an ability they would be wise to cultivate if they want to create a strong business culture that generates results. Studies have shown that employees who thrive generate better bottom lines.

Coleman defines a simple formula to help modern leaders create PURPOSE via storytelling. The formula is called “SELF-US- NOW” and shows how you by first defining your own motivation and what drives you can establish a connection to the organization and to the employees’ motivation and drive to instil a burning “us-together-now-for-a-higher- purpose” feeling.

The leader’s role as storyteller

The first step is to find a strong “SELF”. What is it that drives YOU as a leader of an organization or as head of a department, what motivates you to go to work, why does it give you PURPOSE? The stronger and more personal your own story is the better. Are there any episodes from your upbringing that has shaped you into the person you are today? Have you had any career incidents that have given you a wake-up call? What makes you happy? What makes you sad?

Formulate the stories! Tell them!

Why do you think that Obama time and time again has talked about his upbringing at his grandparents in Hawaii and his absent Kenyan dad? Why did Steve Jobs tell us about his working-class upbringing at his adoptive parents and his fight with cancer? Why do we know that Stine Bosse has grandchildren and is enthusiastic about humanitarian work? Because they are stories that help create an image of who these top leaders actually are, what motivates them and what values they represent. The stories make them more than just leaders; they become humans with a mission and a passion.

It is paramount that a SELF story is true; it must come from within and be driven by motivation and PURPOSE. Credibility is the foundation of any communication and an imposed or invented story will immediately be perceived as artificial and incredible.

Creating common values

The next step – US – is about elevating the personal story to a value level and making the rest of the organization part of those values. This is where the leader’s story merges with the purpose of the organization and the employee’s values. What is it that brings you together? What is your destination? What is the important job you have?

This step requires that the leader has his finger on the pulse and knows his organization. No employee likes to have values forced down their throat; it is therefore the leader’s job to address the existing values of the organization in a subtle way and ever so quietly make them stronger, more constructive and full of PURPOSE. We need to get to a place where the employees no longer refer to the organization in third person but simply identify with the organization because it shares strong values and because it creates identity to work in that particular organization.

We are working in a grey area – or danger zone if you will – where the affiliation to the workplace can become almost religious. We know it from some, particularly American, companies that manage to create such a strong corporate culture that it seems almost sectarian.

It would be unnatural for us to plead sectarian conditions in an article that promotes PURPOSE and convincing rhetoric. We are not promoting joint meetings with battle songs and group hugs. Nor should we be calling our workplace our second family. But we must feel that the many hours of work we put in each week are about more than the money that flows into our accounts. Only then, will we invest a bit more of ourselves – for the benefit of each person in the company and for the company as a whole.

When values turn into action

At the last step – NOW – the leader will match the story and values with the daily work and challenges. Values do not create PURPOSE when delivered in capitals on a nice poster in the lunch room or when described in a flyer to your customers. Here, they just become nice but utterly abstract words. Values create PURPOSE when they are converted into action. Everyday routines must be narrated so that when we are “moving piles”, “answering e- mails” or “sweeping the floor”, we do so with a higher purpose.

Of course, there will always be mundane jobs, long meetings and difficult processes, but the claim is that through stronger narratives we can give PURPOSE to these routine jobs and thus solve them a bit smarter and with a bit more commitment.

The story must be repeated, renewed and updated

So how do you do that? Well, as described at the beginning, you invest yourself as leader. You prioritize the narratives and make yourself and your employees the stars of the narratives. You create a strong narrative which you believe in yourself and can vouch for, a narrative which your employees can see themselves in and which confirms the company’s purpose and business.

And you tell the story again and again and again. Keep it precise and incorporate it in current challenges, successes and changes. Enthusiasm requires communicative repetition. PURPOSE requires communicative repetition.

Storytelling may feel awkward and strange to many modern leaders. It takes guts to pursue that path. But once you are faced with employees who self-assured say that they are “creating a better world”, “fighting for crucial rights” or perhaps even “put a man on the moon”, you know telling stories was the right decision.

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