Alignment Off, but Still Driving

Surprisingly, a mismatch of personal purpose and organizational mission may not matter that much.

See the new issue of Briefings magazine, available at newsstands and online.

It’s been decades since that steamy summer day in Manhattan when I took a bus, the M101, up Madison Avenue. I still remember the bus driver, a jovial, outgoing African American of middling years who carried on an entertaining monologue, commenting on places as the bus passed by. He alerted us to sales going on, told us a bit of the history of buildings and stores, offered reviews of films playing at theaters whizzing by, and suggested we visit exhibits at nearby museums.

It wasn’t the specifics of what he said but the ebullient mood he transmitted. That bus was a cauldron of emotional contagion, all positive. On that muggy August day, most passengers boarded in a sullen mood. But as they exited the bus, that driver would smile and wish them a happy day—and their smiles in return showed their mood was already heading there.

Years later I learned that bus driver’s name, Govan Brown, and that he had a personal mission. The deacon of a Baptist church, Brown saw his passengers as part of his “flock” to be tended.

His purpose stands in stark contrast to that of the New York Transit Authority, his employer. Its organizational mission might be summarized simply as getting passengers to their destinations efficiently—which has little or nothing to do with tending to the well-being of those passengers. The formal statement is to “preserve and enhance the quality of life and economic health of the region through the cost-efficient provision of safe, on-time, reliable, and clean transportation services.”

But, surprisingly, such a mismatch of personal purpose and organizational mission may not matter that much. Research by the Korn Ferry Institute finds that just being in touch with your purpose can matter greatly, more than the match itself. The researchers call having a strong sense of personal mission being “purposeful,” having clarity about your own purpose, and at best, finding some way in which your purpose seems compatible with your niche in your organization. Such purposefulness, that data shows, has a high correlation with feeling both engaged in one’s work and commitment to one’s organization.

In short, you need not have an exact match between your personal purpose and your organization’s mission. Companies can benefit, it turns out, by welcoming people whose burning purpose is not a cookie-cutter fit with that organization’s mission.

Consider, for instance, today’s career “nomads,” people who may spend just a year or two at a given company but who nevertheless may add a needed dose of creativity or alternative perspective. Or take the counterintuitive advantage of a fossil fuel company hiring a climate-change activist whose purpose revolves around ending carbon dioxide emissions: that’s the vision and energy that can help that company open a division aiming at carbon reduction through alternative energy, which could prove to be a major strategy for survival in the future.

As Signe Spencer, one of the Korn Ferry Institute researchers, put it, “It’s a common mistake to want alignment between a worker’s purpose and an organization’s mission. That’s an old way of thinking. It doesn’t matter how alike your purpose and your company’s might be—just that you are committed and engaged.”

My bus trip with Govan Brown, which I recounted in the opening pages of my book Emotional Intelligence, struck a chord with Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist. He saw Brown as a prime example of what he and his research partners, William Damon at Stanford and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont University, call “good work”: a mix of first-class performance, utter engagement, and a guiding ethical purpose. That combination makes someone excellent at work they enjoy and find deeply satisfying.

Indeed, Brown was an outstanding bus driver. When he retired, hundreds of his devoted passengers came to a party in his honor—the only time the New York Transit Authority threw such a retirement event. By then he had gotten more than 1,400 letters of commendation—and not one complaint.