How to Connect to Purpose for a Robust Culture

The heartwarming movie, Hidden Figures, reveals the overlooked and crucial contributions from a pivotal moment in American history. Through historical footage, we are treated to President John F. Kennedy speaking about NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon. How giddy and exciting must it have been to hear him utter those words? In those days, the threat of nuclear holocaust was all too real. It was present in everyone’s lives. The Space Race directly addressed the threat posed by the USSR, pitting US technology and resources against theirs in an existential struggle. To go to the moon was at once an expression of confidence in a potentially peaceful future, the capability of the team at NASA, and the American spirit.

People were riveted to their television sets throughout the decade as the mission unfolded. President Kennedy galvanized an entire country behind a seemingly mind-boggling task: to send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth. The team at NASA easily understood and connected with the mission, vision and values that the President espoused. In the same way, leaders and organizations that succeed in connecting their people to a greater purpose can expect to reap the rewards of a robust culture along with healthy outcomes.

Leadership’s Role in Purpose

A few years ago, a group of people toured the manufacturing facility at the British medical manufacturing firm, Smith and Nephew. They stopped to ask an older woman who was winding bandages on the shop floor what she did there every day. Her reply was simple and profound: “We relieve suffering.”

Dr. Michael DeBakey was one of the greatest practitioners in the field of cardiovascular surgery. One day at Methodist Hospital in Houston, he was observed talking to one of the janitors before moving on to complete rounds. When the janitor was asked what they talked about, he replied that Dr. Debakey had asked him about his family and how he was doing on his job at the hospital. When he was asked what he did there, he said proudly, “Dr. DeBakey and I, we save lives together.”

When people can connect to the purpose leaders propose, they can see how what they do for the enterprise matters. When this happens, engagement soars and the Constructive culture gets strong reinforcement.

What these people had in common was as much what they didn’t say as what they did. When asked, neither of them described the tasks that they performed. Instead, their leaders had succeeded in helping them connect the job designed for them to perform to the larger outcome of the enterprise. Do you think that these two were engaged and took a “want to” approach to their jobs? What is the likelihood that their leaders communicated with them frequently about the purpose of what they were doing? When people can connect to the purpose leaders propose, they can see how what they do for the enterprise matters. When this happens, engagement soars and the Constructive culture gets strong reinforcement.

Leadership Tools for Connecting to Purpose

How many organizations have mission statements that people have difficulty remembering? If people in an organization aren’t clear about what they’re expected to accomplish, it’s difficult to create a lot of energy to be impeccable in executing their responsibilities. If your mission statement is too lengthy, develop a “bumper sticker” phrase that communicates what your organization does. Leadership should be prepared to revise mission or vision statements to hone this connection to purpose. One of my clients recently revised its vision statement because it became apparent that people were not making the connection between their work and the picture the organization had tried to create. A subsequent effort to capture the “end state” involved everyone at the company; the result was a clear and aspirational vision statement that they still use today.

The ways that leadership communicates purpose matter greatly. What are the ways that you communicate what you want? Is the majority of your organization’s official communication sent via email? Dr. DeBakey was relentless in connecting with people personally throughout the hospital, talking to them about their jobs and how what they did mattered in the greater scheme of things. To the janitor, he repeatedly emphasized the need for the hospital to be spotlessly clean to reduce the possibility of infection. No doubt the conversations he had with the kitchen staff focused on the need for the food to be flavorful and appealing so that people would want to eat it, thus nourishing themselves and speeding their recovery.

Going Beyond Transactional Communication

Leaders must be equally relentless in clearly communicating the purpose and must use many different types of communication repeatedly to ensure their intended message is received. The following are some of the methods leaders can use beyond standard transactional approaches, recognizing that “receiving” is as important as “sending.”

  • All-Hands Meetings: These provide regular, consistent opportunities to communicate information and, whenever possible, field questions about ongoing operations and issues. To be successful, all-hands meetings must use full communication with a focus on both sending and receiving information, with ample opportunity for team members to provide feedback. Be prepared to potentially have some difficult—but necessary—conversations, and always ensure that the overall theme connects to the purpose.
  • Management by Wandering Around (MBWA): While this method has been around for a while, MBWA continues to set useful examples for improved communication throughout organizations. Based on spontaneous interactions, MBWA encourages managers to engage in conversations to learn from these informal situations to aid in decision making, problem solving, and more. Focus on relationship building, open communication, and communicating how the employees’ everyday activities connect to the larger purpose of the organization to ensure that MBWA is not misconstrued as micro-managing or “watching over shoulders.”
  • Skip-Level Meetings: These should be used to get a qualitative feel for what people are experiencing on a regular basis. Done regularly, such meetings can yield lots of information about employee views of purpose and their connection to it. At the outset, the people being “skipped” may be concerned that you are prying into their world or keeping tabs on them. The conversations should be wide-ranging and not necessarily limited to superior/subordinate issues. As with the items above, this forum presents an excellent opportunity to help those attending see the ties between their work and the overall purpose.

Leadership must be willing to show that their people matter and what they do for the enterprise matters equally. When leaders show interest in the person, it is easier to help them discover the importance of their work.

What do all these suggestions have in common? Leadership must be willing to show that their people matter and what they do for the enterprise matters equally. When leaders show interest in the person, it is easier to help them discover the importance of their work. This lets the individual contributor connect their personal purpose and energy to the larger purpose of the organization.

Connecting to Purpose Matters

We hear repeatedly that people seek to become connected to something greater than themselves. How can this matter? The client I mentioned earlier that made the effort to change its vision statement recently landed in Crain’s Chicago Business Top 100 Companies to Work For out of 14,000 entries. Connecting your people’s work to a larger purpose can return big dividends.

To Impact Culture, Connect Where It Counts

Communication doesn’t do anything by itself, but you can’t do anything inside an organization without it.

How many times have we heard someone complain, “We really need better communication around here”?

In fact, organizational surveys and commentaries on their results routinely cite the need for better communication to improve organizational climate, culture, and outcomes such as engagement. For example, a 2014 Gallup Poll1 revealed that fewer than 32% of US workers are engaged in their work. More sobering was the notion that nearly 1 in 6 is actively disengaged. Since we know that engagement is an outcome of culture, what does this tell us? Surely leaders didn’t set out to deliberately disengage a large segment of the people in their organizations.

A Case for Better Communication

What’s missing and what needs to happen? Communication will figure heavily in any effort to improve climate, culture, and engagement. However, more communication isn’t necessarily the answer; better communication is. In fact, one of the most important functions supporting an organization’s culture is the character and quality of its communication among its members.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.-George Bernard Shaw

Here are some key questions to ask about authentic, effective communication within an organization:

  • When information originates from above, is it timely? Is it credible? Is it straight from the source rather than filtered through a lot of intermediaries? Is it actionable? Is it in line with the organization’s vision and values?
  • When communication originates from below, is it what needs to be said rather than just “what they want to hear?” Is it acted upon? Is it appreciated?
  • Is communication oriented toward learning and problem solving? Does it focus on interdependencies and include the bigger picture? Does it focus on the overall impact of the group?

When members of organizations answer such questions with a “yes,” they also tend to report that the culture is constructive and, in turn, that they are satisfied with their jobs and motivated to perform.2

Let People Know They Matter

One of the greatest frustrations among individual contributors and their supervisors is not knowing whether what they do makes a difference. People want to know that they matter! And leaders who effectively communicate how their members contribute will generate tremendous trust and, consequently, higher performance.

Leaders seeking to foster and support a constructive culture must recognize and act upon traits of human nature. Those receiving a message, especially a “change” message, are likely to ask two questions that overshadow the features of the message: How will this affect me? And, Do I trust the sender?

Appeal to People’s Core Needs

Psychologists tell us that at the root of human aspiration, we seek three core needs: Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence. When organizations strive to foster an environment for attaining these, the resulting climate embeds these qualities in their members’ work.3

An example of where this appears is in high performance athletic teams. In action, we see each member demonstrate a particular set of skills on an individual and collective basis. Athletes often reinforce and energize each other in difficult circumstances. You may also have observed or experienced the way a home crowd can influence the play of a team due to its passion and support. In this symbiotic fashion, relatedness helps lift the performance of those around us.

Business leaders spend much of their time communicating about competence and empowerment (autonomy) but, sadly, tend to overlook relatedness. I see this all too often when coaching leaders on the impact of their leadership or communication style and it is truly rewarding when corrective action is embraced and followed through.

Make the Connection

When we communicate with others, we must not only be very clear about what we want accomplished, it must be relevant—even compelling. Leaders often deprive themselves of a key tool to fortify their message by communicating solely on the technical relevance of a desired action, preferring to withdraw from emotional content or connection. They often fail to leverage the critical component of “relatedness,” the desire for people to be connected to others and to something beyond themselves (in other words, how they matter). Their instructions may be crystal clear but, in the absence of the “why” and “how members fit in,” tasks may ultimately end up being performed in a minimal or perfunctory manner. This could be a component of the lagging engagement ratings we see.

Peter Fuda writes, “To truly engage people, we must speak to their emotions; their hopes and dreams, and their fears and worries.” Elegantly crafted mission and vision statements are not enough; leaders must communicate in a way that goes to the parts of our brain that act instinctively and emotionally. We must connect with others emotionally to invite trust to create a culture that leads to truly higher productivity and satisfaction.4

So ask yourself: Is my communication clear enough? Is it really relevant to others? Am I “connecting” with others and connecting them to the organization, or am I just transmitting information?

I look forward to continuing this conversation and invite your comments on LinkedIn and Twitter.


1Adkins, Amy (2015). Majority of U.S. Employees not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014. Washington, DC: Gallup.

2Cooke, Robert A. & Szumal, Janet L. (2003). Organizational Culture Inventory®/Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® Feedback Report. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

3Fowler, Susan (2014). Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work. San Francisco, CA: Barrett-Koehler.

4Fuda, Peter (2013). Leadership Transformed. New York, NY: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.