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What is the Purpose Gap?
The Basics

What is the Purpose Gap?

Is the business world merely paved with good intentions?

4 minute read

9th Apr 2024

Many organisations worldwide claim to have a clearly defined purpose. However, as the adage goes, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” 

The B2B Purpose Paradox report shows that 86% of global executives believe their company has a purpose. But how many of them are truly committed to translating that purpose into meaningful action?

What is the purpose gap? 

The report’s research didn’t end there: it found that only 24% of those same global executives would say that purpose is truly embedded across their business. Franziska Füsting, trend analyst at TrendWatching argues that this is a systemic issue affecting organisations worldwide: businesses just aren’t living up to their purpose claims. She calls this ‘the purpose gap’ – or the ‘intention-action gap’ within organisations. 

Essentially, it’s the difference between what companies say and what they do. 

We see similar results in research by PwC – 79% of global executives say purpose is central to an organisation’s existence and business success, but only 34% say that it guides executive decision-making. But if purpose isn’t guiding how decisions are made at the top, what exactly is it used for? 

What causes it?

For most businesses, letting the gulf grow and spin out of control was not a conscious decision.

“If you’re at the beginning of the journey, you’re probably talking about purpose without a huge amount of action,” acknowledges Sarah Gillard, CEO of Blueprint for Better Business – a charity aimed at creating a better society through better business. “But if that lag goes on too long, you may be purpose-washing.”

“If you’re at the beginning of the journey, you’re probably talking about purpose without a huge amount of action.”

Sarah Gillard

Some businesses might be talking more than walking, but with the ever-growing power of the consumer, they can’t afford to throw their purpose around so carelessly. “A company can’t stand for a social issue and not follow through with actions,” says Myriam Sibide, founder of Brands on a Mission. “If brands miss the mark and use purpose only as a positioning tool, they risk their efforts being labelled as ‘purpose-washing’.” Businesses can’t afford to be all talk.

What can businesses do to close the purpose gap?

It’s not all bad news. Franziska Füsting has come up with a solution called the Purpose Circle to help organisations bridge the gap.

The Purpose Circle is a tool that can give any company the guidance and inspiration necessary to move from their purpose statement to a meaningful impact. Füsting developed the tool after identifying eight barriers that prevent organisations from turning intention into action, allowing them to review their Impact, Intention, Ideation and Implementation. 

“The hardest part of becoming more purposeful is the courage to adopt a human-centred view.”

Charles Wookey

Deloitte suggests a more intrinsic change is needed; demonstrating a “genuine concern” for the well-being of your workforce is the first step to closing the purpose gap. This starts with recruitment: research by Deloitte suggests that people under 44 years old are “much more likely to choose and switch jobs for reasons related to purpose compared to older generations”.

Leadership behaviour has a significant impact on a company’s pursuit of purpose – Deloitte calls this “the role-model gap”. They recommend that leaders employ “more frequent communication”, and focus on humanising their corporate message through real-life stories.

How can businesses stay on top of the gap? 

Charles Wookey, Co-founder and former CEO of A Blueprint for Better Business, believes that “the hardest part of becoming more purposeful is the courage to adopt a human-centred view.” Being “human-centred” would require businesses to redefine their relationships with employees by adopting a realistic view of their wants, needs and potential.

And it’s not a bad thing when employees bring up the purpose gap to their employers. As Wookey notes, “opposition is healthy and a sign that something real is at stake.” 

Further reading