The Poison of Purpose

What lives in the shadows of the purpose driven organization?

John Higgins & Mark Cole, April 2021

Purpose has become a catch-all word, virtue signalling the arrival of a new world order of responsible business, where the lion will lie down with the lamb and all will be well in the world, all discord resolved, all hurt cured.

John has a learnt suspicion of institutionally mandated goodness – he grew up as an army child, read the prayer that seeks God’s blessing on the artillery at his father’s funeral and went through the British public school system that advocates the highest of moral standards while giving the world the ethics of Boris Johnson.

Widening the gaze, all sorts of firms claim the moral high ground, from Goldman Sachs busyness in the execution of god’s purpose, while field workers for Oxfam and Save the Children exercise their droit de seigneur while doing good work in the most blighted parts of the world. Within the NHS grand statements, documented and tracked in glossy brochures and institutionally approved spreadsheets, make no allowance for the messy, often nasty, world of British social norms – within which its staff and patients live and breathe.

Meanwhile soft soap merchants such as Unilever peddle their good intentions (unless it really ticks off their shareholders) while ignoring the social inequity of their gross internal pay differentials that are now taken for granted and justified by ‘merit’- another naïve term bandied about to disguise the larceny of the rich and powerful who continue to profit most from an economic order predicated on excess and the soma of instant gratification.

Deconstructing purpose

If we keep quite still, the texts of modern business management – the models, ideas, practices, business school research, and so-called “thought leadership” (better seen as “thought management and constraint” in most instances) – deconstruct themselves, as Jacques Derrida indicates in his work. This self-deconstruction is revealed as the tensions between their various elements tear at their espoused cohesion, their binary oppositions reveal a unifying hierarchised framework, and the discourse that undergirds the text becomes apparent (as do the voices that have been excluded).

Hence, the purpose driven organization deconstructs itself as another in the long line of models that end up distracting from the complexities and brute realities of life. They are another screen behind which resides the discomforting realities of the here and now, to magic away conflict and non-commensurable difference and to provide a sense of the benign collective – while we live with the vicious hatreds waiting to be stirred up between us and others, staring into the abyss that the worship of materialism and individualism has created for us.

In the latter regard, there is a powerful paradox apparent in corporate life. The individual as both oppressed producer and boundless consumer is a key strut of a capitalist economy. The individual is celebrated ceaselessly in recognition of this pivotal role. Yet, at the same time, organisations feel compelled to maximise collectivity in both realms of society. The organisational “I” is constantly privileged through HR practices such as recruitment and selection and performance appraisal – whilst the recognition that human agents need to combine with collective intent and motivation to organise to achieve things manifests in ceaseless exhortation for people to engage in “teamwork”. This appeal to the collective is further promoted by demanding that people subscribe to corporate ideals in terms of vision, mission, values – and now, as an ideological refreshment – purpose.

Purpose supports another device for corporate control, as a vehicle for imposing a world view on others over and above the exhortation to the collective – it can be understood as a totalitarian device akin to the emerging Chinese orthodoxy of ‘Xi Thought’. During a presentation from someone who had been exposed to the Jump Start experience, one of those so-modern firms whose basic service is hard to decipher, a member of the audience exclaimed: ‘I grew up in South Africa and know what a totalitarian regime looks like’. Constant supervision and evaluation presented as a personal development and learning opportunity, rather than a technologically enhanced version of Jeremy Bentham’s prison Panopticon, which is why Foucault borrowed this prison model to articulate his distinctive and extremely nuanced take on power as something premised on assumed visibility, constant scrutiny and resultant categorization.

Purpose in our current era of enhanced managerial supervision (and highly concentrated voting rights in the leading US corporations) is another attempt to reinforce compliance and institutionally approved enslavement. It is an invitation to stop thinking for yourself – or suffer the consequences. It is an instruction from the inner sanctums of power as to how power would like to see itself reflected back – virtuous and on the side of the angels, without blemish, flaw or contradiction.

Paying attention to the purpose of purpose

Whilst texts may deconstruct themselves, there is also a wider responsibility for us all to assume a reflexive and critical stance in respect to ideas such as this. We need to put these notions under intense pressure, so as to see how their structural integrity holds up under stress. The texts unravel themselves, of course, as Derrida asserts. But a truly critical engagement requires human agents to weaken the ties that lash together concepts such as the “purpose driven organisation” by asking questions of these notions. In this instance, these might usefully include:

  • What doesn’t get talked about when organizations talk of purpose?
  • Who is it that speaks most about this?
  • And, crucially, to what extent does it feel meaningful to everyone who works in the enterprise – or does the purpose feel partisan, owned by a few and demanded of the many?

There is nothing wrong with being purposeful. It’s a key quality of humanity to come together in a shared endeavour; we see this on so many occasions. Moreover, human agents need to have a sense of purpose in respect to their critique of the ideas abroad in the world and which can lie unchallenged in their own heads. The focus of this piece has been an exploration of the conceit of “purpose driven organisations” – and our purpose has been to lay this notion bare for what it is: an ideological construct with political intent in corporate life.

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