Since the late 18th century, self-interest and economics have gone hand in invisible hand. Adam Smith believed self-interested actions would ensure healthy competition and serve the common good. "By pursuing his own interest," he wrote, the individual "frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he intends to promote it."

Moving Past Self-Interest

Two and a half centuries later, young professionals are not so inclined to believe in the inherent benefits of self-interest. Last year's Deloitte Millennial Survey found that candidates are less likely than ever to give businesses the benefit of the doubt. 75% of respondents believe that businesses focus on their own agendas without even considering broader issues. That's up from 59% in 2017. While Smith may have cheered this behavior, today's workforce is less charitable. 45% consider the self-interested pursuit of profit to be totally unethical.

Young professionals are not naive. They recognize that profits, process improvements, and product development are necessary objectives for every organization. They're certain, however, that large companies have the resources to do far more when it comes to serving a higher purpose. Deloitte identifies four key areas where employee and employer priorities are misaligned: Generating jobs, improving society, enhancing employee livelihood, and protecting the environment.

It's not just young upstarts who feel this way. Millennials in senior-executive positions agree that "businesses should protect the environment, improve society and innovate more than they believe their own employers are currently doing."

Skeptics might feel tempted to dismiss the call for purpose as another gripe from an entitled, disloyal generation. The truth is that employees of every age and at every level on the corporate ladder are eager to do important work, make a genuine impact, and see the world around them change for the better. When Source One surveyed Procurement executives at last week's ExecIn Forum, they found that "providing a sense of purpose" was also a popular strategy for recruiting and retaining non-millennial talent. It ranked second only to "pay and benefits" on the list of priorities.

Introducing this sense of purpose could even help organizations move past the same tired, 'us vs. them' conversations that have dominated the discourse since we all learned the word millennial. Reminding team members from across multiple generations that they're ultimately pursuing the same goal will foster a greater sense of collaboration and promote a free exchange of insights and expertise.

What's more, there's no reason businesses need to think of purpose in world-changing terms. In advocating for a purpose-driven workplace, Forbes contributor Alexandra Douwes advises leaders to "take purpose off a pedestal." Instead of defining purpose with the language imposed by an increasingly polarized culture, she encourages managers to consult each member of their team  and learn how they define the term. "Some people," she writes, "find fulfillment in helping others, while others derive meaning from learning something new or working on a project they're particularly passionate about." Don't forget about reaching a consensus and a common understanding. It won't do much good to trade one kind of self-interest for another.

A New Leadership Style 

Self-interest has not only defined the way business leaders engage with consumers and partners along the supply chain. It's long played all-too-large a role in how they attempt to motivate and activate their employees. When employees are disengaged - and Gallup suggests they often are - managers have historically elected to provide new incentives while increasing oversight.

Why? According to the Harvard Business Review, it's because the same conventional economic logic that defines market engagements also defines talent management. Robert Quinn and Anjan Thakor write, "The assumption behind such conventional approaches is that work is fundamentally contractual and that employees are self-interested agents." With time, they suggest, "this assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Employees do just what is needed to earn a reward or meet a standard, and nothing more." In other words, leaders find themselves with aimless, listless employees when they neglect to provide a purpose beyond financial compensation.

Presented with an aspirational mission, employees won't just feel happier to come to work each day. They'll pursue new opportunities, drive greater results, and display a tireless commitment to innovation. That's more than enough reason to challenge the tenets defined by Adam Smith and business school lectures.

Quinn and Thankor go on to outline an 8-step plan for introducing purpose and communicating it across the organization. It starts with a process of education. To begin overcoming both self-doubt and skepticism, leaders need to look for real-world examples of successful purpose-driven businesses. Armed with a standard to follow, leaders can begin to consult their internal teams and integrate feedback into a new, authentic mission.

"If your purpose is authentic," they write, "people know, because it drives every decision." Equally important is constancy. A great, purposeful leader will take pains to communicate their mission at every opportunity and avoid deviating from it at all costs. In doing so, they'll stimulate their teams to think, learn, grow, and provide for an evolution. Each organization harbors potential agents of change, but few tap into this pool of talent. With the benefit of a strong purpose and a collaborative culture, leaders should have no trouble leveraging these employees to spread the word and drive the business forward.

While economic benefits are never a guarantee, the cultural benefits of a shared purpose are impossible to deny. When businesses recognize the practical value of a mission and commit to walking the walk, they defy economic convention. They benefit from employees who will not act with self-interest in mind, but freely embrace opportunities to transform Procurement and the organization as a whole.

Learn More

The first installment in Source One's new whitepaper series offers tips and best practices for optimizing Procurement's approach to its people. In addition to training programs and operational models, Part 1 of Building an Effective Procurement Organization advocates for the incalculable value of purpose. Download it today to lean more. 

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