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The promise of purpose

The promise of purpose

Bob Murray

What is your purpose in life? Some of you will know. However not many, and for some reason, very few lawyers, writes Bob Murray.

Perhaps lawyers get tied up with the transitions of life — career, client matters, family, status and so on — that they have little or no time for the deeper thoughts that purpose involves. Some are even afraid, confusing purpose with religion or a deeper commitment to something than they are prepared to give.

Even managing partners often struggle to articulate the social purpose behind the existence of their firms (I’m sorry, pro bono work, while a great idea, doesn’t cut it as a neurogenetically compelling social purpose).

A little while ago, I approached my publishers with the idea for a book on purpose (which they accepted). As a scientist (a behavioural neurogeneticist), I have long been fascinated by the fact that all successful human societies — organisational, familial or national — have a generally agreed sense of purpose. Those organisations and societies that have the strongest agreed sense of purpose last the longest. The Catholic Church is an obvious example, as is the charity focusing on housing for the poor begun by the famous Lord Mayor of London Sir Richard Whittington in 1424 — you know, he of Dick Whittington’s Cat fame.

On an individual level, people that feel they are here to serve a larger social purpose tend to live longer, healthier lives.

On the organisational level, recent research by PwC has shown that law, and other professional service firms which have a strong, agreed and unified sense of purpose are more successful than others, their people more engaged, their level of productivity and profitability higher.

However, the question that we scientists asked ourselves was: biologically, in terms of our genetics, our neurochemistry and our neurophysiology, what is purpose? From an evolutionary perspective what purpose does purpose serve? Why do we have a sense of purpose in our lives, individually and collectively?

Before we go much further, let me point out that there is not one 'sense of purpose'. There are two, and in many ways they are quite different. The first is more of a really strong genetic drive which all humans — and in fact all pack or herd animals — have. This is the drive to ensure the survival and strengthening of the group — any group, work, family, sporting, religious — which we feel we belong to. This drive is the origin of our altruism and even our empathy.

The second is broader, weaker and, to a scientist, much more interesting. This is the need which we all have, to a greater or lesser extent, to contribute to something 'greater than ourselves'. Sometimes this is what we tend to mean when we talk about a 'sense of purpose'. Unlike the first purpose drive it is more conscious — most of us are aware, on some level, that we have this desire. This 'social purpose', as it is sometimes called, is rather like relationships, or parenting.

The need to have it is lodged in several key areas of the brain, yet the particular expression of it is a result of societal norms and our own experiences in life.

This 'social purpose' — according to the very latest study — is, like spiritual and religious expression, closely linked to the dopamine reward system. It is one of the factors which keeps our immune system functioning well. We are attracted to a firm which has a sense of purpose because that purpose, by getting a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens active (the seat of the reward system), makes us feel good.

Evolution is about group or collective survival, about selecting for characteristics or traits that make the group or the species stronger. Since purpose in both senses is universal in human beings, nature must have had a very strong reason to make it so. Over millions of years the traits that led to group protection, to altruism, to empathy and to a sense of social responsibility were rigorously selected.

By using the drive for social purpose skilfully we can make our firms, our families, our teams stronger and more vibrant. We can increase engagement and commitment. We can bring clients into our 'tribe' and make it emotionally painful for them to leave us for another firm.

In a sense clients feel, mostly on an unconscious level, that they are contributing to the purpose of the firm by engaging the firm’s services. They are doing something that makes them feel good; indeed something that they may become addicted to.

The reason for this lies in that dopamine reward system I mentioned earlier, which is behind all of our addictive behaviours.

Dopamine is a very powerful opiate which evolution designed to make us feel good about and keep doing that which leads to group or individual survival. In hunter-gatherer times this included eating sweet berries and honey to give us sugar energy, sex so that the band could continue to expand, hunting (in males) so that the band had enough protein, and having rituals and a shared sense of purpose, both of which served to unite the band.

We can become addicted to all these — to hunting (or its derivative modern activity), to sex, to sugary things, to rituals and to hiring the services of a particular purpose-driven firm. 

In the future, when you get around to asking “Why should this firm exist?”, bear in mind that high performing partners and clients may be asking that question too. It would be good to have a convincing answer.

Dr Bob Murray is the principal at consultancy Fortinberry Murray and co-author (with Dr Alicia Fortinberry) of Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership.

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