Which one of these elevator pitches do you find more interesting?

  1. My name is Nadine. I’m a facilitator. I offer team building services and consult on how to make events more engaging. I also have a monthly meetup group about networking, and a blog. Sometimes I do presentations.
  2. My name is Nadine. I think relationships and connection are incredibly powerful and important to individuals, organizations, and society as a whole. So I use my facilitation skills to help individuals and organizations have better and more productive connections.

Probably the second one, right? That’s because, in the brilliant words of Simon Sinek,

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

In other words, purpose is a powerful tool. Whether we are trying to market a service, bring a group together, or simply get to know someone, starting with “why” is always a good idea.

Start With Why

Purpose and The Individual Relationship

In the truly excellent book Crucial Conversations, we learn that establishing a shared purpose with the other person vastly increases our chances of getting through a tough conversation successfully and with relationships intact.

It’s also a great tool in less charged situations, like networking. Everyone knows how difficult it can be to answer the question “so what do you do?” quickly and clearly, in a way that makes a good impression. As my own example demonstrates, using “why” instead of “what” to answer that question is more effective and more comfortable, especially if your “what” is complicated.

Purpose and The Bottom Line

A 2012 study found that people who felt a sense of purpose in their work were more than 300% more likely to stay in that work – meaningfulness was the biggest contributor to retention measured by the survey.

They were also 140% more engaged at work.

The polling company Gallup did a research analysis that proved some pretty solid links between engagement and higher performance. They found that, out of 192 companies examined in 263 studies, companies in the top 25% for engagement had 22% higher profitability, 10% higher customer ratings, 28% less theft, and 48% fewer safety incidents; compared to those in the bottom 25%. (source) Those are compelling numbers.

Compelling enough, I think, to justify building purpose more into our interactions at work. This might mean asking team members to question how each activity they engage in contributes to the bigger “why” of the organization, or maybe having a group conversation about what that “why” is, in their minds.

It can be easy for an organization to get wrapped up in the day to day logistics of things and lose track of what the higher purpose is. Business environments can be especially vulnerable to operating in a purpose vacuum, since we’re not used to treating business as something with the potential to do good things. In spite of this, most organizations do exist to fill a genuine need. Identifying it unlocks the potential of purpose for each organization.

Pinning Down Purpose

If someone doesn’t have a good sense of what the purpose of their work is, or if a group lacks a sense of shared purpose, it’s definitely worth investing some time and energy to re-connect with it.

If you are working with a group, it’s always a good idea to engage them in the process of identifying “why” (as opposed to identifying and communicating it top-down fashion).  Together, they will probably come up with far more interesting and insightful responses than any one person ever could and, of course, it’s a great way to increase buy-in .

Here are some tools I like to use to get people thinking on the level of their “why”:

  • Ask them who they serve, rather than what they do. Ask them to describe what happens to the people they serve both with and without their help/work. How does what they do improve the situation of the people who are on the receiving end?
  • Ask them to imagine the world in 20 years both with and without their work (assuming they are doing the work well, it has the desired impact). How is the world worse if the work doesn’t happen? How is the world better if it does? What, specifically, is different? (variation: You are your own grandchild/great-niece or nephew, etc. as an adult. What does the world look like? What is the impact of this work over time?)
  • Ask them to imagine that a horrible new tyrant takes over the government and is going to shut down 50% of all organizations. Each industry is called upon to make the case for why they must remain in business, based on their value to society. What would be the justification for keeping this organization or type of work in operation? (variation: if everyone who currently does your type of work suddenly disappeared, would the government step in to fill the role? Why?)