The Surprising Science of Finding (and Living) Your Organization’s Purpose

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Authored by

NLI Staff
How do you bring your organization's purpose to life? By relying on the science of memory and motivation to go essential, rather than exhaustive.

It’s no revelation to say that leaders want to act with purpose, rather than on impulse. But if you’ve ever tried to implement systems that serve that larger purpose, you’ve probably been surprised at just how hard it can be.

At first, the novelty of it all makes the habit feel easy. Maybe you start meetings with a different agenda, or you ask different questions of people in casual conversation. But over time, suddenly those new habits may start reverting to old habits. You find yourself struggling to get the same outcomes with your new approach, or you may feel guilty for forgetting. Maybe you simply write off the mission to live your purpose as a fool’s errand.

At this year’s NeuroLeadership Summit, we approached this issue of purpose from a counter-intuitive angle: clarity. It’s not often the path people think to take to find and live their organization’s purpose. But the science backs it up. When we give people clarity, we help them see the connection between what they do and why they do it, which compels them to act.

In that way, clarity is both orienting and motivating. It’s what helps turn intention into implementation — knowing into doing.

Finding your purpose

A common refrain at NLI, when it comes to organizations finding their purpose, is going “essential versus exhaustive.” It refers to the brain’s preference for simplicity. Rather than build frameworks that include every value and capability under the sun, the science suggests that leaders should determine the three most important ones and focus only on those.

The strategy serves the limitations of working memory, the cognitive system responsible for remembering — among other things — your shopping list, a friend’s phone number, and the core values of your organization. If we can’t recall the list, we have no shot at using it. At best, we may remember some items, but only at the expense of others.

This is where clarity comes in. Simple leadership models, by their very nature, cut through the noise to alert people to what matters most. And when people know what matters, they can start taking action.

Living your purpose

Pam Puryear is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Zimmer Biomet, a 92-year-old medical device company at the cutting-edge of talent strategies. At this year’s Summit, Pam shared how Zimmer Biomet’s ongoing work to bring clarity and simplicity to employees — through consulting with NLI — has enabled transformation.

In the span of just four years, Pam explained, a number of executive-level shakeups has ushered in a new era of leadership. “As you know, with new leaders come new ideas,” she said. “With new ideas come change.”

She went on to share how the past two years have been marked by rapid adoption of “Culture Promises” at Zimmer Biomet. They consist of short, “sticky” phrases that leaders can use to guide action. Underneath each promise is a set of habits that makes the organization’s purpose come alive in employees’ everyday behaviors.

“Thinking about how can we focus on the essential, you’ll see that one of our Culture Promises is actually identifying the essential,” Pam said. “Because if you don’t do that from the outset, you’re going to have a very hard time keeping the organization clear and focused about what’s going to drive performance in your organization.”

Click here to learn more about how to bring NLI’s leadership principles to your organization.

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