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Putting First Things First: Integrity, Purpose and Purposing

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Richard Jacobs
October 26, 2017

The “heart” of a public service organization—what animates people to serve others and promote the common good—isn’t discovered as people perform their jobs and achieve organizational goals. No, this heart is discovered in a shared purpose evidencing itself in a workplace where people engage in and find meaning in their work.

Public administrators are critical because their followers look to them to demonstrate integrity of character by revealing that shared purpose in their words, conduct and decisions.

A lack of meaning?

In Prisoners of Our Thoughts, Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon note how times of change, hardship and uncertainty confront government employees with formidable challenges. These can cause people to feel disconnected, frustrated and overwhelmed. But, if these feelings persist, what provided meaning gradually becomes disconnected from the work and workplace.

Not only that — these feelings shape organizational culture and, before long, these employees no longer view themselves making a difference. Droning on and on, the culture gradually becomes characterized by complacency, indifference and apathy which, in turn, dissipate innovation, creativity and passion. Performance wanes, not only because these employees no longer care but also because they believe the outcome isn’t worth the effort. Work has lost its meaning and employees increasingly seek safety, security and comfort from a paycheck.

To stem this tide, Pattakos and Dundon challenge administrators to assist employees to identify what provides them meaning, for example, their values, interests, talents and motivations. Once these are identified, public administrators then must induce their employees to link what gives them meaning consciously to their work, for example, how they contribute to and influence others positively in the organization and beyond.

In the late-19th century, Durkheim called this lack of meaning “anomie,” defining it as the social instability resulting from the breakdown of values which precedes a lack of purpose which subsequently evidences itself in meaninglessness.

What’s organizational purpose?

Early in the 20th century, Barnard posited that an organization emerges from a deeply-held desire but, not able to bring that desire to fulfillment by oneself, the will to cooperate must be induced in others. Once cooperation is secured, a shared purpose evolves, solidifies and is strengthened as a spirit of cooperativeness begets a culture wherein that purpose transcends individual self-interest.

Five decades later, Vaill noted how a shared purpose generates a potent synergy, one motivating employees to do “what” they do as they root their work in the organization’s values — the “why” they do it.

Organizational purposing

As organizations grow and develop, it’s not unusual for a vibrant, evolving, purpose-driven organizational culture to become increasingly routinized, with a devolution of purpose evidencing itself in an ever-expanding number of policies and SOPs. As meaning in both the workplace and work diminish, shared purpose erodes, sometimes to the point it’s barely detectible. Then, it’s not long before employees feel powerless, DeCharms noted, viewing themselves as “pawns” who are being pushed around on a chessboard by uncaring superordinates who are motivated solely by self-interest. In this organizational culture, the issue confronting public administrators is the absence of what precedes meaning—a shared purpose—because people desire to be “origins” of their actions.

In the private sector, origins “add value” to an organization. At each stage of its production cycle—whether the organization produces goods or delivers services—“Return on Investment” (ROI) provides a metric for assessing efficiency, namely, the value each employee adds. A negative judgment can be ruthless: Not adding value, scarce resources are being wasted, the organization isn’t operating efficiently and, generally speaking, employees who don’t add value must be terminated.

Efficiency is also important in the public sector, if only for the reason of good stewardship of scarce resources. Yet, effectiveness is arguably a more critical metric, with the organization’s purpose providing the standard to evaluate ROI. Its values—which inspired the organization’s formation and have attracted people to it—provide them meaning and can make their work meaningful.

Success in this regard requires administrators to engage in “purposing” as they continuously refer to the organization’s values and challenge everyone to relate everything they do to those values. Purposing begets greater engagement and innovation, if only because what’s meaningful is recognized.

It’s all about integrity

Efficient and effective public service organizations require people whose desire is to serve their communities and make a difference in them. As these people enjoy their work and discover meaning in and through it, they add value.

The challenge confronting public administrators is to make purpose central to the decision-making process. In this regard, ASPA’s Code of Ethics offers eight values. Concerning purposing, of paramount importance is its value of integrity.

Having dedicated themselves to public service, those who work in the public sector rightly look to public administrators not simply to espouse the organization’s purpose—what Argyris and Schön called “Model I” behavior. More substantively, they want public administrators to embody it in all they say and do—“Model II” behavior—especially when making decisions regarding organizational efficiency and effectiveness.

Embodying purpose—especially during periods of change and turmoil when people easily become stressed—motivates high performance. How? The fundamental assumptions, beliefs and values originally breathing life into the public service organization and inspiring people to dedicate their lives to public service continue to be experienced. Through purposing and by demonstrating integrity, public administrators assist their followers, as Pattakos and Dundon note, to rediscover meaning in the workplace and work as well.

Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]

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