Purpose and the pursuit of organizational Maslow

Written by Mark O'Renick

Leading an organization based on purpose is a movement that is picking up steam. The Harvard Business Review report “The Business Case for Purpose” sums up this phenomenon well: “Today more than ever, companies are searching for a new genetic code that will help them continuously evolve—to survive and to thrive.”

On an individual level, the connection between purpose and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is undeniable. The need for money stands firmly at the pyramid’s base, satisfying the essentials of life. At the much more elusive top of the pyramid is self-actualization, the quest for meaning in our lives. Organizations play a significant role in providing opportunities for employees to earn income to meet basic needs. Companies that succeed long-term will also connect in a deeper way, providing a sense of purpose for employees that relates to their own search for meaning.  

Building a culture based on purpose can seem like a daunting task. After all, individuals have their own definition of what is meaningful in their lives. The process becomes easier when you make the connection between the individual steps in the hierarchy of needs pyramid and what an organization does to fulfill its purpose - making a meaningful impact on lives, communities and the world.

As the graphic shows, the bottom steps of the organizational pyramid are focused on meeting individual physiological needs - making money and having a sense of security.  Belonging happens as employees bond and make friends with co-workers. This sense of belonging becomes even more profound when an organization communicates a defined sense of purpose that employees connect with because it aligns with their own quest for meaning. A simple way to state this is, “We’re going to make money, and we’re going to have a meaningful impact in the work we do.  And when we do, this will be a rewarding experience for everyone.”

In his book, “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age,” Reid Hoffman points out the inherent lack of alignment and commitment demonstrated by employees and employers. The better path is to design meaningful missions (or tours of duty) for employees that give them the opportunity to grow, earn knowledge and build positive self-esteem. Done in the context of accomplishing things that are key to the company’s success, and its purpose, a bond is developed that is powerfully motivating.

With a clearly communicated sense of purpose about the impact your company hopes to have in the world, and people inspired and aligned to execute on the strategy to accomplish this, the door is open to meaning and self-actualization. An interesting thing happens in this journey.  Individuals go from ‘me’ to ‘we’ as the culture rallies around core purpose. And because this purpose is outwardly focused on making an impact on others, it moves from the internally focused sense of ‘we’ to an externally focused sense of ‘we’ - where customers, employees, shareholders and the community are all part of the equation of success.  

Mark O’Renick is a co-founder of Will & Grail, with more than three decades of experience in branding, business strategy, organizational development, finance and entrepreneurial innovation.  He can be reached at morenick@willgrail.com.