The Dark Purpose of organizations

“We make the world a more connected and better place” we are told over an over again during our visit at the Facebook Campus in Menlo Park. No, we haven’t booked a Marketing Tour, we were personally invited by the Global Head of Leadership and People Development. A super nice, smart and definitely capable no-bullshit woman, fun and warm on top. Everyone we met during our visits was filled with purpose and the deep desire and belief to be part of something big and good. Creating a better world for everyone.

The purpose of purpose

Identifying and shaping a strong and compelling purpose in the center of an organization can truly boost employee engagement as well as sales and customer loyalty.  People are looking for meaning and love to contribute to something purposeful.

Needless to say that for some organizations it is easier, as they already have a noble purpose as their founding idea: Non Profits, Social Entrepreneurs, Foundations, you name it. “Regular” organizations often find it a bit harder to reach beyond the “profits for our shareholders” purpose, but they can find it, when they start looking towards their customers: there is some value created for them, otherwise they wouldn’t pay for it. And it pays off to enlighten the purpose, even if it is not that noble but just adding value.

Purpose is not good by nature

We unconsciously assume “having a purpose” is a positive thing per se, but we should not. Purpose doesn’t come with a genuine property of being good or beneficiary. It is neutral and its simple meaning is “the reason why something exits”, or better said: “what for”. Organizations can be created to destroy, to manipulate and to take advantage of other people, organizations or countries. Sometimes this is obvious, in most cases it is covered up.

The enthusiasm on “purpose” can be abused and cover up for the true purpose of organizations, that people would not follow through easily otherwise.

I call it the “Dark Purpose”

The Dark Purpose evolves silently and lives in the dark shadow of the shiny public purpose

Coming back to our Facebook example: in its very beginning fb was nothing more than a digital college yearbook. The purpose was to connect students, eventually spreading out. Over time the influence increased and a business model was invented.

Purpose – like everything – is not a stable thing, but an unfolding process and the purpose of Facebook might have shifted towards “making money”. An IPO is a rather good hint for that . Over time – as much as we could observe – something different emerged: the “gaining  a manipulative power over people”. This might not have been the founding idea, but the opportunity showed and it was taken advantage of, massively as we witness today.

Under the wonderful shiny and positive purpose, or “intention”,  that keeps people enthusiastically and creative in their beliefs of making the world a better place, the impact of all their efforts is the exact contrary. I would be interested to ask people at Facebook whether or not they are still inspired by the same belief as they were when we visited them 3 years ago. While there are some great and beneficial features about Facebook, there is one overarching question remaining: at what price does it come?

Wherever you look, whatever you see, look deeper, look behind and beyond the glossy facades and don’t let yourself be manipulated by a tempting purpose

Of course companies can serve different purposes at the same time, making money, being beneficial and harmful at the same time – and there is a clear threshold:

A Purpose is Dark, when it does harm under the pretext of helping

The tricky part is to lure people into jobs and organizations, promising them to be part of a great cause just to find out they are not. This is the seed for cynicism, frustration, void and uninspiring organizations in the long run.

Think about many other organizations claiming to make your life better, easier and more comfortable. Yes, there is this one purpose designed for customers and employees, and there is that deeper, underlying purpose aiming towards power and manipulation, just because they can. It is tempting. There are other dark purposes we could think of which slowly develop and unfold under the glossy and promising surface.

It is not only tech companies, we can also find it in many financial institutions, investment funds, major consulting companies, with an official purpose of “helping organizations” – whats just not happening any more. The true purpose is not beneficial for all sides of the deal.

If you need to hide your organization’s true purpose, change it or leave it .

Don’t mess around with purpose – it is too powerful and valuable

When we work with organizations, we make sure the purpose we find is for real. If you are convinced your purpose is “making money” is so much better than inventing a purpose fad. Some people might be inspired by the idea to make money, or gaining power, why not. Just give them the chance to make their real choice.

Personal Note: I am aware that this thoughts are not final by any means, that I am on thin ice and there is so much more to say. I do hope to contribute a new aspect to the whole conversation on “purpose”, a conversation that needs to occur..

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