How can companies bridge the purpose ‘Valley of Death’?

Imagine there is work and everyone enjoys going there. Superiors are role models, not whips. Teams feel that their leaders embody the company’s goal, and everyone knows what matters. Everyone plays their part in fulfilling customer wishes and developing new ideas, because performance is recognized and innovation is rewarded. If something goes wrong, solutions are sought together, and not individual culprits. The well-being of each individual is paramount – including that of the managers, who are allowed to be “human” in the company and gratefully accept support. After all, everyone strives for the same thing (in different forms): to recognize purpose in what one does, to be able to feel motivated or inspired by something and to belong to a group of people who appreciate.

And then the alarm clock starts ringing.

Isn’t it amazing that this imaginary world of work sounds so intuitive, and yet is so difficult to implement? There is no shortage of research that shows that more purpose and a higher connectedness to companies leads to more productivity, employee loyalty, higher innovation and happier customers (including M. Nick with the Gallup study, H. Hatami on CEO priorities, M. Hanson on performance, etc.).

And some companies do manage to develop a corporate culture resembling something like this. Often the initial phase of successful startups resembles such a picture. But after a certain time, various corporate ‘diseases’ creep in: Silo thinking, power games, over-bureaucratization, etc. which, coupled with a lack of communication and growing mistrust, lead to demotivation and frustration. And the vicious circle of a toxic corporate culture begins.

Why is that? Because a good corporate culture is not a sure-fire success, but means effort that many managers underestimate. And because corporate culture must develop and adapt to changing conditions.

Two typical examples:

  • A fast-growing startup loses the ‘cool start-up culture’ with open, informal exchange and flat hierarchies as the team size increases fivefold within a short time. As soon as about 100 employees are exceeded, more ‘professional’ structures and new processes in cooperation are needed that no longer fit the old culture …
  • An established company finds itself in a #NewWork time in which employees demand remote work with flexible hours, and in which recruiting raises difficult questions about sustainability and purpose when there is a shortage of skilled workers. Proven structures and models of leadership no longer work and the call for a new corporate culture echoes through the aisles …

The dilemma of any change

“The only constant in life is change”

Heraclitus (Greek philosopher)

Life means change – which applies to biological organisms as well as to physical organisms, e.g. companies or organizations. And a remarkably broad field of research on change shows two recurring patterns (from the stages of grief or death according to Kübler-Ross to team development according to Tuckman to innovation in organizations according to Rogers, Moore or Christensen):

  1. Change takes place in phases
  2. It gets worse before it gets better.

The change towards a purpose-driven organization is also going through stages that roughly look like this:

Phases in transition to a purpose-driven organization

And therein lies the challenge for every change: There is a trough, a ‘valley of death’, in which the productivity of a company suffers, in which old structures and methods no longer work, and the new ones do not yet work.

During this time, the company culture deteriorates, managers feel overwhelmed and employees are frustrated. It takes time, perseverance and adequate support to test and establish new methods. Only when the new approaches work, can the trough be passed to allow for a phase of growth, which excels any old performance optima.

Prerequisitse for the successful transformation toward a Purpose-Driven Organization

This trough is also the biggest hurdle for companies, which may already be in a phase of declining productivity and thus be very sensitive to further losses. But sometimes the only way up is the way down. And if team learers are adequately are supported during this phase, the decline can be significantly shortened.

The following four prerequisites should be met to enable a change towards a new more purpose-oriented corporate culture:

  • Top management is willing to lose productivity in the short term in order to develop a more productive and sustainable corporate culture in the long term
  • A critical crowd of leaders are ready to exemplify cultural change
  • A critical number of employees are already raising questions about the meaning of work and are ready to drive change proactively
  • The company and the job descriptions offer room for individual job role design and innovation.

Any support for the development of a Purpose-Driven Organization ideally follows a two-pronged approach: Managers receive training and are coached to develop into Purpose-Driven leaders (‘top down’), and employees are supported in their search for individual purpose (‘ bottom-up ‘). In this way, the decline in productivity can be reduced and the transition can be accelerated.

Purpose fatigue? What’s with this purpose hype again …

Does everyon really need purpose now? Of course not.

The blanket call for more ‘purpose’ in a company can even be counterproductive, and there are some critical voices who see purpose as the next marketing fad – with some justification. Because if there is no demand for purpose in an organization, a ‘dictated’ top-down purpose has the opposite effect: it makes employees cynical and turn away from the managers and the company. The same applies to employees who’d like to see meaningful development opportunities bottom-up, but only find them in shiny PowerPoint presentations, and not in the behavior of managers: Expectations are raised and immediately disappointed again – with frustration and demotivation as a consequence.

In other words, if the four conditions for a successful culture transition are not met, a ‘purpose initiative’ is doomed to failure and will likely create the opposite effect.

However, if a company is serious about transition, then the current ‘turbulences’ in the market and socio-economical environment may offer a great opportunity to reposition itself as an organization. Because the word “Purpose” (and related onses such as new work, remote office, flexiwork, etc.) may be a marketing fad, but the underlying humansearch for meaning or purpose in life is not. It has been there for thousands of years and is today more current than ever.

* For the sake of linguistic simplicity, we do not use “gendering” in the text. For all mentioned jobs/roles/etc. of course, all genders are always meant.

Photo credit: Jacob Kiesow on Unsplash

To be continued…

In Part 2 of this article, we present an example of how the development of a purpose-driven corporate culture in a consulting company could be promoted by means of a specially tailored management training.


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