How to Instill a Sense of Purpose in Your Employees

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Who Not How" by Dan Sullivan. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is having a sense of purpose so important in the workplace? What can you do to foster purpose in your team?

In their book Who Not How, authors Sullivan and Hardy explain that your personnel will give their best work when they have a purpose in what they’re doing. There are a few things you can do to instill purpose including encouraging collaboration, trusting your team, and avoiding micromanagement.

Here’s how to instill a sense of purpose in your team.

Collaboration Generates Meaning and Value

We do our best when we feel that our decisions and behaviors—and our investment of resources and time—have meaning and value, or a sense of purpose. Purpose, the authors explain, is what pushes us to give our best—regardless of the job or task. We want the outcome of our investments to have an impact, somehow, on something.

(Shortform note: Many organizations try to cultivate their employees’ passion instead of their purpose, but for the rank-and-file, passion is a poor motivator. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport explains that most people, throughout their lives, learn that fulfillment comes from feeling passionate about your work. As a result, passion-seeking employees are unable to cope with boring or frustrating aspects of their jobs—they think the work is pointless or not right for them because it doesn’t inspire passion 100% of the time. However, if you cultivate your employees’ sense of purpose and make the point of their work clear, they’ll feel motivated to push through the difficult realities of their work, even if they don’t feel passionate about it.)

According to Hardy and Sullivan, purpose comes from collaboration. It’s difficult to find a truly great purpose alone—after all, there’s only so much you can do with the limited time and resources you have. That’s where the power of personnel comes in: When we work together, the quality and impact of our combined result improves—and, thereby, the value of that result. Because of this, collaborating with others deepens our sense of meaning and fulfillment—it’s empowering to be a member of a group that’s large enough to accomplish something truly valuable.

(Shortform note: According to one Harvard Business School professor, a sense of purpose through collaboration has a myriad of benefits: Feeling you’re part of something greater than yourself leads to high levels of engagement and creativity and a willingness to partner with others regardless of boundaries. In other words, joint purpose encourages your team to willingly step out of their comfort zone in pursuit of meaningful goals.)

The authors note that as you reach for ever-higher goals together, your vision of what’s possible grows. Your shared sense of purpose expands, as does your trust in each other. Once you realize how much you can accomplish with the right support, the authors suggest, you’ll gain confidence in your ability to make a powerful impact. You’ll feel increasingly invested in the people who helped bring your vision to life, and they’ll feel more invested in you—as a result, you become more committed to each other, and to the goals you share.

(Shortform note: It’s all well and good to hear that purpose expands your vision, or that investing in your team leads them to invest in you, but what’s the bottom line? CEO Mark Weinberger of EY says that between 1996 and 2011, companies who centered their purpose around social impact rather than financial outcomes outperformed the S&P 500 by 10 times.)

Purpose Is Amplified by Trust

As you grow into your role as a results-focused investor in people, the authors urge you to trust your team to do their jobs without your constant intervention. Trust amplifies your team’s feeling of purpose—it lets them know you believe they’re the right people for the job and that you trust them to find the best path to a stellar result. It’s a form of investment that forces them to invest, as well. Either they are the right person for the job, in which case they’ll see value and meaning in the autonomy you give them, or they’ll step aside so the right person can take over.

(Shortform note: Trust is critical to a successful autonomous structure, elaborates Paul Marciano of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work. Trusted employees feel more comfortable taking ownership and pitching the risky ideas that lead to great innovations. To engender trust, he says, provide autonomy, decision-making authority, and resources without questioning your team’s loyalty.)

According to Sullivan and Hardy, leading in this fashion—providing opportunities for your team to face and overcome challenges autonomously—helps your team build the confidence and commitment they need to fulfill your vision and grow as people. The longer they work this way, the more capable they become—and the more you can trust them to handle. It amplifies your relationship with your team from transactional to transformational: You’re not just working for yourselves anymore; instead, everyone benefits meaningfully, so everyone’s willing to invest.

(Shortform note: Allowing your team autonomy doesn’t only help you meet your business needs—it also helps your team members meet their psychological needs. In his book High Output Management, former Intel CEO Andrew Grove explains that the most effective and lasting motivation is one that fulfills the human desire to achieve competence or mastery and contribute to a stellar result. By challenging your team and trusting them to produce excellent results, you give them opportunities to improve and overcome, effectively supporting them in their pursuit, as Grove would put it, of self-actualization.)

Leadership Supports Without Micromanaging

A great leader, Sullivan and Hardy say, builds an autonomous team by staying focused on the results he wants to achieve and minimizing his interference. This is what it means, they say, to “invest” in your team. According to them, you do this in four steps:

1) Communicate your vision and clearly define the desired outcome. (Shortform note: The importance of clarity is heavily corroborated in entrepreneurial literature. For example, in Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Paul Marciano explains that sharing the big picture with every employee is a powerful source of motivation. It lets your personnel feel like partners, and gives them context for the decisions you make.)

2) Invest in a team of people who are capable of accomplishing your goal. (Shortform note: On this point, Marciano provides additional advice: Regularly ask your team what else they need. Capable personnel still have needs, and they’ll know what would improve their outcomes—whether that’s resources, information, or training. It’s your responsibility to provide those things, or at least to make them available.)

3) Let your team figure out how to get there and do the work themselves. (Shortform note: The authors aren’t suggesting you build a team with no oversight or responsibility—they’re just saying you don’t need to provide it personally. On that note, Verne Harnish advocates assigning someone to be accountable for each process and function. In doing so, you promote responsibility and a clear hierarchy—everyone knows who to ask about each part of the system. Crucially, nobody should ever touch a system for which they’re not somehow accountable.)

4) Give consistent feedback and praise depending on the results, and don’t let your team give up. (Shortform note: Here’s some more detail on useful feedback from Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: First, feedback should be 80% positive and only 20% negative—this ensures personnel will be praised for what they do well and heightens the impact of criticism. Second, when you give criticism, be prepared to reinforce a change in behavior with immediate positive feedback. Third, when you see an opportunity to give feedback—praiseful or critical—do so immediately. If you wait, the impact is lost. Finally, assume any failure to meet your expectations is a result of your failure to communicate.)

Be a Paragon to Your People

The authors suggest that as you grow closer to your team and accomplish increasingly ambitious goals with their help, the most powerful purpose you can have is to be their paragon. Find out what their needs and goals are, and do everything you can to help them, care for them, and uplift them. In return, they’ll give you their best work, and, as we’ve seen, transform and expand your life. They’ll be proud to support a leader who supports them, and they’ll make it their purpose to enable you to continue that work.

(Shortform note: It may seem odd, from a cost-focused perspective, to hear that an entrepreneur’s ultimate purpose is to care for and uplift other people, but this argument is well-supported in entrepreneurial literature. For example, Marciano (Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work) calls this “consideration” and says it’s one of the seven keys to financial success. As he puts it, if the company doesn’t care about the employee, why should the employee care about the company?)

How to Instill a Sense of Purpose in Your Employees

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Dan Sullivan's "Who Not How" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Who Not How summary:

  • Why you should stop trying to do everything yourself and just hire someone
  • Why minimizing cost should not be the primary goal
  • How you can reclaim your valuable time at work and home

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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