The irresistible pressure not just to say you have a purpose but to live it

Purpose is your enduring and meaningful reason to exist. It aligns financial performance with a societal or environmental goal, provides a clear context that guides daily decision making and unifies and inspires people towards achieving it.

A clear purpose is now a basic expectation on all companies. An expectation of employees, customers, regulators and even investors. Larry Fink’s Letter to CEOs, the Business Roundtable and the UK Corporate Governance Code have made it so.

But COVID may be the catalyst that forces the shift from ‘stating’ to ‘living’ purpose. Society has supported business; society will look for a return. Black Lives Matter and #metoo have further exposed persisting injustices. Employees demand action. Consumers shun businesses that fail to live up to their responsibilities..

It is no longer enough to state a purpose.  Purpose must be authentically and demonstrably lived.

But this is not just a moral responsibility. Measuring purpose in organisations across the globe has taught us that purpose can have a dramatic impact on people and performance.  People everywhere are far more motivated, far more engaged and far more productive in purpose-led businesses.  It also makes them happy.  And that means the business performs better.

But there’s a problem. This isn’t about ‘having a purpose’. It’s far more complex than that.

The numbers consistently show that being aware of the organisation’s purpose, knowing the words, has almost zero impact on how people feel and behave. For purpose to engage and clarify, for it to inspire commitment and ignite creativity, it must be authentically lived.

People who experience purpose in this activated way measure levels of commitment 40% above typically colleagues, openness 30% higher and adaptability 25% higher. They are also 25% less likely to quit.  Colleagues who merely understand the purpose show none of these behavioural shifts.

And what activates purpose, consistently, across companies and cultures globally, is a specific set of key cultural attributes. It is these attributes and not purpose itself that create the startling performance gains of the most purposeful companies.

And an inauthentic purpose is worse than no purpose at all. Where the purpose message is heard but not seen to drive how the organisation actually behaves it creates confusion and can lead to damaging levels of mistrust and detachment.

An authentic purpose is a powerful force to align companies and inspire people. But purpose is not about crafting some clever words. It is a complex cultural process which must be brought to life in communities across the businesses. And that requires accurate, robust and actionable metrics to understand purpose at source and track and adjust its impact over time and across the business.

Read more about why now more than ever we need robust and actionable metrics

Now more than ever we need robust and actionable metrics

To respond effectively and act with precision, companies need numbers. Numbers that measure how purpose is really working. How it is changing beliefs and behaviours across the organisation.

The Contexis Index has been developed with researchers at Cambridge University to provide those numbers. By focussing on the impact of purpose on the DNA of the organisation itself, it provides the numbers to answer two questions.

  • To what extent is purpose driving performance in my organisation?
  • And how and why is it working and where is it blocked?

Our analysis is based on years of observing the cultural attributes that are present in high-performing, agile and entrepreneurial organisations globally. These real-world observations have then been combined with the cutting-edge research of behavioural scientists from institutions across the globe.

The Index brings together academically rigorous measurement scales of organisational behaviour with detailed analysis of the role of cultural factors. It combines robust levels of research validity and academic scrutiny with practical and actionable business insight.

The Index allows you to understand the current position across a wide range of population groups inside the company and compare yourself to organisational norms outside it. It allows you to design highly targeted interventions to improve organisational effectiveness and optimise employees’ experience of purpose at work with a high degree of confidence. And allows you to track performance in real time by ‘dip-sticking’ a small sample of the population to assess and adapt communication and interventions to maximise impact and efficiency.

Read more about robust metrics for purpose and for its impact on real people and real business

The Index explained

How can you tell if your purpose is working? We teamed up with leading academics to really get under the skin of the most successful organisations. (Four minute watch)

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Robust metrics for purpose and for its impact on real people and real business

The Contexis Index tells you how purpose is actually working across the business today. It measures peoples’ response to organisational purpose. And it measures how that is impacting the specific attitudes and behaviours known to have the greatest impact on fulfilment and performance.

To achieve that, the Index measures specific ‘performance behaviours’ using existing scales from leading behavioural scientists. These measurements cover the full range of cultural performance (e.g. compassion, openness), human performance (e.g. engagement, autonomy), and decision performance (e.g. velocity, adaptability).

The Index then measures each employee’s understanding of and attitude towards purpose. And determines, through detailed analysis of the data, how purpose is influencing performance behaviours through measuring three moderating cultural characteristics: trust, emotional ownership and contextual clarity.

It is these three characteristics which appear to activate purpose in organisational culture. Measuring their impact is vital to being able to understand how purpose is working and where it is blocked and in determining programmes and interventions that will bring purpose to life across the business.

The Index is a uniquely powerful tool to measure purpose efficacy, performance behaviours and cultural attributes, and demonstrate and explain the relationships between them to draw detailed conclusions and recommendations for action. The Index also measures a range of other ‘performance outcomes’ such as perceived performance, joyfulness and intention to stay; and additional measures that support the analysis including personality types, meaningfulness of work and level of systems thinking Data for the Index is gathered via a 15-minute on-line survey of employees. Results are provided via an interactive dashboard, a detailed face-to-face presentation and Report with full analysis and recommendations from researchers at Cambridge and business analysts at Contexis. Data is held at Cambridge, secure and fully anonymised.

Read more about the real impact of purpose in numbers

Watch more about what the Index is and measures

The extraordinary impact of purpose; in numbers

The Contexis Index has been adopted by companies across the globe with analysis conducted on businesses on every continent.

So what is this revealing about purpose and its real impact?

The numbers are clear and remarkably consistent across business types, sizes and across cultures. Purpose supports human happiness and real business performance.

What is clear is that it is not about having a purpose but about activating it in the lives of people across the organisation. If that is successfully done the results can be extraordinary.

In every business we have measured, there is a group of people for whom the company’s purpose is truly alive. And another, usually much larger group, for whom it isn’t. These purpose-positive people are not just more joyful and fulfilled but dramatically more committed, responsible, open and engaged than their peers. They are clearer on strategy, more willing to trust the company and much more likely to stay.

But this is not about how aware they are of the company purpose – awareness has a minimal impact. It is about how alive it feels to them. And what brings it to life are three very specific cultural attributes. These are the degree to which purpose is believed to be the clear and authentic driver of business decisions, the extent to which it is trusted as such, and how far people feel they can take emotional ownership for it.

For businesses this is therefore a far more nuanced conversation that most people acknowledge. Getting purpose right is only the start. Bringing it to life requires a real focus on consistently and authentically living it in the strategy of the business, building radical levels of trust, and encouraging a culture of ownership for all.

And that means a change in how most leaders lead. But the rewards are remarkable. We see companies who bring purpose to life measuring extraordinary leaps in human and organisational performance with real and measurable outputs in terms of commercial return.

Read more about how taking the Index has impacted real business
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Purpose gap

Some courageous CEOs have said some brave things about what they believe in – but they are not getting any traction. How can entrepreneurial thinking help them to link their ‘Why’ to the ‘What’? (Two minute watch)

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Covid, remote working and surprising influence of purpose

COVID-19 has forced an unprecedented shift to dispersed and remote working for organisations across the globe.

Leading organisations are adapting their thinking with extraordinary speed. PwC anticipates that most of its 22,000 UK staff and Tata Consultancy Services 75% of its 450,000 global workforce will work from home in the post-COVID-19 world.

In fact, 86% of UK CEOs say there is an enduring shift towards remote collaboration. And 98% of people would like the option to work remotely for the rest of their career with 84% of them feeling able to perform as effectively working remotely as in the office.*

“The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past” Jes Staley CEO Barclays Bank

But there’s a problem. Most organisations are finding they are not terribly good at managing remote teams in a way that gets the best from their people.

Our measurement system explains why this is so. And provides a blueprint for building happy, productive and innovative remote teams.  Teams with at least a 50% increase in feelings of commitment and behaviours of responsibility.

The numbers show something remarkable. Remote workers appear hyper-sensitive to the positive impact of organisational purpose.  And that has huge implications.

Of course, the numbers show that employees who identify with organisational purpose are significantly more engaged than average colleagues wherever they work. But the impact of purpose on feelings of commitment and responsibility amongst remote workers is a remarkable three times stronger than amongst  their office-based peers.

Why is this so? Why does bringing purpose to life appear to have such a marked impact on remote workers?

Purpose appears to effectively bridge the social distance of remote work.

“One basic difference between [dispersed] global teams that work and those that don’t lies in the level of social distance—the degree of emotional connection among team members. Mitigating social distance therefore becomes the primary management challenge for the global team leader”. 

Tsedal Neeley, Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration, Harvard

The numbers show that in remote teams, the emotional connection that an activated purpose creates leads to significantly higher levels of productivity, a greater ability to sustain autonomous work and dramatically stronger feelings of responsibility, care and commitment.  As well as impacting motivation and mental health.

And that has huge implications as we move into an increasingly dispersed way of working in a post COVID world.

*PwC, World Economic Forum /Buffer State of Remote Work Survey

The vital role of research

Cutting edge research is central to the philosophy that drives the Index. It is a collaboration between leading minds in organisational psychology and behavioural science globally, led by researchers at Cambridge University. The results of every company’s measurement are carefully analysed by our research team at Cambridge, working in collaboration with business practitioners.

And the Index itself is a global research project. Every company that participates provided vital, anonymised, data that helps scientists better understand the role of purpose in creating great companies. The Index has already built probably the largest database on purpose in business that exists in the world today.

And the Index also contributes funds that directly support the work of scientists at Cambridge and beyond. Research grants are provided by the Contexis Index CIC, a social enterprise that returns 70% of profits to supporting research and education in purposeful and sustainable business.

In running the Index in your company you are not only accessing exceptionally valuable data and insights into how purpose is working in your own company but also joining a global movement of academics and business leaders dedicated to better understanding purposeful business.

Why a great purpose, brilliantly communicated, is not enough

For a global professional services firm, ‘purpose-led’ was the heart of its strategy. But that wasn’t fully landing. They just didn’t know why. 

The firm’s ambition was that purpose should be part of the everyday experience of staff and customers globally. But the firm knew that, despite genuine commitment at the top and patches of real transformation in parts of the business, the strategy was not fully landing,  and in certain offices not at all. 

 The firm therefore chose to ask all employees across its global operations to take the Contexis Index in order to understand why purpose wasn’t working as they had hoped.

The results led to a wholesale rethink of their strategy

The good news was that they confirmed the firm had a strong culture with particularly good levels of trust when compared to international benchmarks. However, despite its focus and the considerable investment that had gone into it, purpose was an active part of that culture for only 25% of employees. The great majority felt neutral about the purpose. The purpose strategy was  consequently simply failing to support positive feelings and behaviours in most of the business.

It wasn’t that people were unaware;  they just didn’t see the firm’s purpose lived day to day

Employees passionately wanted to believe they worked somewhere that made a difference in the world. Also it was not a case of people being unaware or confused. Awareness and understanding of purpose was particularly high. They just didn’t see the firm’s purpose truly lived in day to day actions and decisions. 

Which was a significant missed opportunity. Because, where purpose was truly alive to them, people were significantly happier and far more productive, took more responsibility and were less likely to leave than their purpose-neutral colleagues. And dramatically more so than negative peers. Across the firm, the analysis showed that the single action of shifting the neutral majority’s belief in purpose to that of the upper quartile of belief would result in a 24% uplift in positivity and productive attitudes and a similar reduction in staff turnover. 

The key question was what was so different about the purpose-positive group?

Strong feelings of emotional ownership led to high levels of engagement and commitment 

For purpose to be alive to them, people must feel a sense of emotional ownership and attachment. Yet, in most parts of the firm, ownership was unusually weak against international benchmarks. By contrast, ownership was markedly strong in the purpose-positive group across the firm’s offices. Ownership was not a metric the firm had ever explored before and not one highlighted in its annual engagement survey.  

The numbers also revealed in great detail where ownership and purpose activation was weakest in terms of offices, functions, age bands and levels of seniority.  

The firm received these extensive findings in a face-to-face presentation to the Board and Exco, in a comprehensive 70 page Report and via an interactive dashboard. Detailed insights and specific recommendations from behavioural scientists at Cambridge and expert business practitioners at Contexis provided the firm with a clear road map to recraft strategy. The index also provided a measure to track impact and adjust on an ongoing basis.

Amongst a number of detailed recommendations, the clear priority was to inspire a far stronger culture of ownership, particularly amongst Directors and Fee Earners and with a key focus on specific offices. The new strategy, therefore, was to bring purpose to life in such a way that these key groups felt it relevant to them and to give them a sense of ownership for the purpose and its execution within their own department. This resulted in a re-frame from driving purpose down from the top, to empowering senior teams in each market to design the execution of purpose for themselves.  The programme started to roll out in late 2020 and the intention is  to re-run the Index in Q3 2021 to assess progress and recalibrate.

One of the world’s most purposeful businesses finds a third of employees have been left behind – with real consequences for performance

An international Media Group considered itself a global leader in purposeful business. But, even so,  scepticism amongst some individuals was doing the business harm.  The business had worked hard to establish a clear purpose, creating an internal Purpose secretariat with members in every office across its global operations to ensure purpose was truly lived across the organisation.

Understanding the puzzle of purpose scepticism

Leadership was confident that the strategy was working and that purpose was truly alive to most employees in most countries. And they wanted a way to audit and track that. But they acknowledged there was some scepticism amongst individuals and in some operations. They just couldn’t pin down why or shift these attitudes. And they knew these were doing the business harm.. The Contexis Index was adopted to track performance and explain weaknesses. Global leadership wanted clear and robust metrics to understand and shift impact.

One of the most purposeful businesses ever measured

The results clearly showed that purpose was truly alive in the organisation. This was one of the most purposeful businesses ever measured. But there were clear weaknesses to how purpose was lived and experienced in key parts of the business. For a start, awareness of organisational purpose was 100%. More remarkably, for 72% of global employees that purpose was authentically alive and forming a key part of how they felt, how they behaved, how they made decisions – and how likely they were to stay. This activation of purpose had a significance and measurable impact on multiple measures of commitment, openness to ideas, clarity of execution, happiness and loyalty. But there was still a sizeable minority of employees who felt neutral or negative about purpose. These people were significantly less effective across all measures and far more likely to quit. The picture was particularly mixed between offices, with some performing exceptionally well in the survey and some far more negatively. Once again, what explained most of these differences was how active purpose appeared to be. But why?

The culture attributes that activate purpose

The analysis showed that specific culture attributes were activating purpose. Where these were weak, the impact of purpose on performance was suppressed.

In some offices, lower levels of emotional ownership appeared to detach people from purpose and suppress its impact in their working lives. In others it was a weakness in trust.  These cultural factors had a far greater impact on purpose activation than factors of gender, geography, ethnicity, age, practice, how long people had worked in the organisation or how aware they were of the purpose message.

The organisation now had a clear set of metrics, by office and division, that showed purpose performance. But, far more significantly explained where purpose was blocked and why.  This allowed the Secretariat to focus energy and resources on specific parts of the business with highly targeted messages and interventions.

“What is remarkable is that the research exactly matches and explains what we see on the ground. Without exception, those offices that measure the highest purpose activation are our strongest commercial performers and visa versa. As a KPI and lead indicator of financial performance I can’t imagine anything more reliable” Group Chief Financial Officer