Purpose fluidity explains how individuals and organizations exchange meaningful representations of purpose at work, enhancing the sense of purpose when flowing dynamically between personal and organizational purposes. In other words, fluidity is not just using one representation of purpose (personal or organizational), but combining both at the same time, flowing from the personal to the organizational and vice versa, as is shown in Fig. 2.1. Fluidity then is based on what an organization’s purpose means to the individual as well as what the individual’s purpose means to the organization.
Fluidity is a powerful source of meaning and personal flourishing. It occurs when employees see and experience that contributing to the corporate purpose helps them to develop their personal purpose in life. Following the previous example, fluidity can be illustrated by such examples as “helping to put a man on the moon reinforces my personal purpose of making an impact on society.” Of course, purpose fluidity does not come by simply elaborating creative axioms, but from these connections becoming profoundly ingrained in the minds and hearts of individuals.
We have seen many practices that foster purpose fluidity. This is the case, for example, of Novo Nordisk, a company that makes medicines for diabetics, and requires that all new employees spend a day with a diabetes patient.Footnote 9 It is also the case for ISS Facility Services, where top managers spend one day a year performing frontline positions, such as cleaning or maintenance, in the premises of their clients. These practices are a source of what some call “a beneficiary contact,”Footnote 10 helping individuals to experience and gain greater consciousness of their organization’s purpose.
We could offer many testimonies of people who, with pride and gratitude, refer to how such practices have helped them become both better persons and better citizens. Indeed, one of the unmistakable signs of a purpose-driven company is that, in an ordinary and sometimes unnoticed way, it positively influences the families and personal relationships of their employees. By encouraging various representations of the corporate purpose, employees find greater sources of meaning from which to choose. What does the purpose of the company in which I work mean to me? And how does it help me in the development of my purpose? These are central questions in the workshops at Bimbo, for example, where 130,000 employees reflect upon their personal purpose along with that of the organization.
Besides, fluidity is related to the question: what do various individual employee purposes mean for the company? Consider, for example, the case of KPMG. After defining the corporate purpose as “inspiring confidence and empowering change” the company did not embark on a typical slogan-based communication campaign. Instead, partners and managers, with the company’s purpose as a backdrop, were encouraged to connect compelling stories and personal examples about their own purpose. Following this, the rest of the employees were invited to do the same, combining reflections on the corporate purpose with sharing their own accounts of how they believed they were making a difference. As a result of maintaining this practice over time, recruitment improved, employee turnover decreased, and the company climbed 31 places on Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For.Footnote 11
Fluidity requires that companies recognize the relevance of each employee’s purpose. It means placing the person at the center of the organization and appreciating his or her dignity and uniqueness. In this way, fostering fluidity at scale is a means to embrace diversity in organizations, as “the idea of embedding plurality in purpose is that we share a common humanity, and people are kept at the heart of the business enterprise.”Footnote 12
Consider, for example, the business philosophy of the German company dm-drogerie
marktFootnote 13 expressed by the motto: “Here I’m a person. Here I’m shopping!” Initially, it referred to their customers, but naturally started to be used to refer to the employees as well: “Here I’m a person. Here I’m working!” These two simple sentences are the backbone of dm’s business. They express the purpose of dm, that is, respect for people, or more precisely, respect for the value and uniqueness of each individual. dm explains this motto by stating that it is a commitment to put the individual at the center of everything, whether he/she is a customer or a worker, offering to every person the right to emphasize his/her individuality. For dm, embracing diversity is much more than a matter of quotas, but of respecting each individual as he or she is.Footnote 14
Fluidity allows individuals to connect personal and organizational purposes without necessarily identifying them. This is especially relevant for the many positions and professions that are not commonly thought of as professional, such as the worker in a factory or the cashier at a supermarket. This is because fluidity is based on concordance,Footnote 15 and refers to the extent to which the organizational purpose can be used by employees to express their authentic interests and values.
We observed this reality in the practice of a store manager at Decathlon, which he called “the 15 minutes of purpose” meeting. At the beginning of each day, store employees gathered and exchange tales and anecdotes from the previous day about how they promoted the corporate purpose of “making sport accessible to many” (e.g., how an employee helped advise a customer on how to best prepare for a triathlon, or helped another customer find the best bicycle for his particular needs). However, we saw in many cases, that more enthusiasm was expressed for stories not related to sports but rather, to other themes that were significant to the one explaining it (e.g., “I helped a young boy find a good present for his girlfriend”; “I made a sad client have a good time shopping in the store”). Speaking with the employees, we observed that, even the ones who were not very passionate about sports, by making meaningful connections of their personal purposes with the company’s purpose, gained a better sense of purpose in their activities.
Keeping the dynamic fluidity “alive” is about what some have called “making every-day-work meaningful.”Footnote 16 And since fluidity goes in two directions, it is much like friendship or trust. We can trust someone, but if we do not feel that person’s corresponding trust in us, our own trust will be short lived. The same happens with purpose fluidity. If individuals do not see that the organization values their personal purpose in life, sooner than later they will become distant to their organization’s purpose and purpose fluidity will be lost.