by Jackie Barretta

3 Keys to Creating a Powerful Purpose

Feb 18, 20154 mins
IT Leadership

Some purposes satisfy your intellect with their logic, but the most powerful ones touch your heart and literally ignite high energy and enthusiasm.

The most powerful team purposes go way beyond satisfying your intellect and literally ignite high energy. I experienced this on a team I once led where an inspiring purpose tangibly brought them to life.

I was the CIO of a large trucking company, and one of my teams was building a system to help truck drivers load their trailers more rapidly. I couldn’t have asked for a more capable and dedicated team, but there was something missing. They were lacking that palpable energy a team generates when they’re genuinely jazzed about their work. Their intellects were occupied with what they were creating, but their emotions weren’t excited about creating it.

1) Ask Why Until You Feel the Answer

I assembled the team one afternoon, and we launched into defining why our work mattered. I wanted the team to define our mission in a way that every team member would feel in the very marrow of their bones. “Why does this project matter?,” I asked the team over and over. At first, they spouted out the scripted answers: “Improved productivity will enhance the bottom line,” and “increased efficiency will improve our reputation as the fastest delivery service in the country.” These logical answers made a good business case, but they were only scratching the surface. We kept digging deeper until finally one answer captured the heart of each team member: “Reduced driver stress will make roads safer for families from New York to Seattle.”

Because the new software would alleviate the time crunch and reduce weariness and stress for over 10,000 drivers across North America, the team was not only making the drivers’ lives easier, they were likely saving lives. Less driver exhaustion equals fewer accidents.

When you’re defining your team’s purpose, keep asking why your work matters until you feel the answer in your heart. This process resulted in a purpose that palpably brought my team to life.

2) Invigorate by Inspiring

When people feel inspired by a meaningful goal, they become physically invigorated. Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang, a scientist and researcher at the Brain and Creativity Center at the University of Southern California, says that when people get inspired, they literally feel more alive. In her lab, she recorded images of subjects’ brains with a scanner while telling them two different stories. One story made them feel truly inspired, as they confirmed later in interviews; the other interested them but did not inspire them.

Immordino-Yang then carefully studied the subject’s brain scans. The inspiring stories, she found, activated the part of the brain, the medulla, that regulates our vital functions, whereas the interesting stories did not light it up at all. Since the medulla controls our breathing, heart rate and blood pressure, Immordino-Yang’s research revealed that the reason we feel so moved by an inspiring purpose is that it activates the same neural systems that keep us alive.

Inspired by a great purpose that literally enlivened them, my team members became palpably more engaged. But what does it take to inspire a business team?

3) Target the Extraordinary

According to Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot in a 2003 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology while they were professors of psychology at the University of Rochester, we are inspired when we are intrinsically motivated to pursue a goal that we believe is superior to the mundane concerns that regularly occupy our minds. Profits are extrinsic. Efficiency is mundane. Inspiration can only be evoked by a target that we deem more important. Saving lives was the target that inspired my team.  

When people are inspired, they are deeply moved to actualize the target that inspired them. They are willing to transcend their self-serving concerns for the sake of a greater good. They become better equipped to achieve their target because inspiration facilitates enhanced creativity and mastery of work. With their brand new purpose in mind, my team worked with renewed vigor and discovered creative solutions they would have otherwise missed.

Some purposes satisfy your intellect with their logic, but the most powerful ones touch your heart and literally ignite high energy and enthusiasm. An inspirational purpose provokes the sort of results you can’t get with cold, hard logic alone.