Why Purpose-Driven Organizations May Struggle With Change

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I love working with companies who really want to make a difference, beyond just making money for their shareholders. I mean, making money is fun and all, but it is even more rewarding to join in on a just cause. Plus, as this HBR article explains, companies who have an authentic purpose woven through their business often end up reaping more financial benefits too.

Some companies have their purpose so woven into their cultural fabric that you immediately know when you walk through their doors (or onto a Zoom call) that you have stepped into something different. You feel it as a customer when you fly Southwest Airlines or stay at a Ritz-Carlton. You can see that all the employees genuinely believe in what they are doing, and it goes beyond just a job for them. When an organization is purpose-driven, it flows through their entire culture.

However, there is a catch. Driving major transformation inside of companies rooted in a purpose can be very challenging, especially if that transformation is seen as any kind of threat to that purpose. The most rational business cases may be viscerally rejected if they don’t fit perfectly into employees’ interpretation of the company’s purpose or cause. I’ve seen customer service representatives in tears because they were so concerned about how a technology change might impact their end customers’ outcomes. Meanwhile, executives leading the transformations express frustrations like one I heard recently, “There’s a general feeling here that any change is going to destroy our culture.”

From what I’ve seen, resistance to change can be especially high in organizations rooted in purpose, despite (or possibly because of) their very strong cultures. Initially, I found this to be a bit counter-intuitive, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

In my experience, purpose-driven companies tend to empower their employees to change things to better fulfill their purpose. Employees may be given a lot of latitude to make decisions to do the right things for their customers or other stakeholders. They may also be empowered to refine processes until things are running the way they want. If the company does well, it continues to grow, maybe by adding new facilities, or even acquiring other companies — and the empowerment extends to these new groups. Eventually, though, there is an opportunity to standardize systems and processes to gain efficiencies and also further the company’s ability to scale. The leadership team pitches this, but these large-scale projects infringe on the processes the employees feel ownership over — the ones they designed and built. These projects also threaten their autonomy and their perceived freedom to make the best decisions.

To successfully lead change in these kinds of situations, we believe you must first really go to the root of the organization’s purpose, culture, and history while also understanding how employees interpret their role in protecting and achieving the purpose. With this understanding in mind, you can craft communications that build awareness of the problems that need to be solved and the reasoning behind the chosen solutions. You can further communicate what’s in it for the employees — specifically the benefits they, their customers, and other key stakeholders will receive from the changes. If these messages are intentionally and consistently shared, people will eventually gain trust in the change. Employees need time — probably more than you expect — to digest the reasoning, ask their questions, and go through their own personal change curves. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but the more that employees care about the company and its purpose, the longer it may take them to buy-in and adopt change.

Yes, change is hard, especially for a purpose-driven organization, but it’s not impossible, and with the momentum of a purpose-driven organization in full force, the potential for change is even higher.

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