Why WHY Matters Now: How to Lean on Purpose in Times of Crisis

Written by

Cathy Carlisi Managing Director | Ashley Grice Chief Executive Officer |

Mar 19, 2020 · 4-minute read


We are pre-cognitively wired to seek a decision, a single solution. And that’s in good times. In times of immense change, to ensure our survival, this predisposition becomes even more acute. Back in the cave days, this was often a physical decision – stay in the cave alone or move with the tribe. Despite evolution, we still look to our teams and leaders to navigate unknown waters, and we seek wisdom from our own hearts and minds for complex decision-making, specifically in times of personal crisis.

Yet what happens when personal stability is upended by global crisis? When our hearts and our minds are gripped by a truly vast unknown, even by fear? When considerable changes happen hour by hour?

Weathering times of unprecedented upheaval demands a healthy dose of consistency and calm to beat uncertainty inertia. Which is why leaning on your WHY in times of crisis is critical. Why does the work we do matter? Why does my role make a difference? Why do I need to change how I behave? Your WHY, your Purpose, is not to be sidelined in tough times. It’s the backbone, not to mention the rallying cry, required to ignite the courage to do what we must to keep moving forward.

Behavioral scientist Kelly Goldsmith of Vanderbilt University says it plainly, “[humans] are not wired to tolerate uncertainty. That’s why we come up with structures and rules to try and make things predictable.” Humans, long beyond the cave, crave stability. In times like global pandemics, even the most predictable things we do – who we see, what we eat, how we exercise – change, and the focus on securing our immediate needs precludes us from focusing on the long-term big picture. Understanding your timeless WHY, something that endures and elevates, in times of immense change is critical to both emotional and practical progress—to see past the immediate turbulence to plan for a stronger future.

Goldsmith submits that the way in which people respond “depends on if they think they can reduce the uncertainty. If they believe they can reduce it, often times they [will] engage in immediate, reparative actions.” Providing a locus of control for stakeholders will allow them to act in the best interests of themselves and their families, companies, and communities; it will provide them focus and fortitude, the muscle and means to do the tough things they need to do.

“No matter the strategy applied to an ever-evolving market, Purpose remains a constant that connects us to each other, even when we’re most isolated.”

Purpose gives us a lens and the vision to see past the gray to the light at the end of the tunnel—not to mention the fuel to do the digging. Purpose enables people to see a future, even if that future is very different than they once thought. Purpose provides the clear reason why people need to adapt to—even bring into existence—a new normal.

In this global pandemic, the benefits of Purpose have never been more necessary. Leading by example through Purpose will not only benefit your organization and employees, but also serve as a model to demonstrate to others how they should act. Being Purpose-driven doesn’t mean you’ll never deliver bad news or make tough decisions. It simply means the actions you take should be consistent with your timeless WHY and take a multiple stakeholder approach into consideration.

Given our current need for global cooperation and communication, the importance of extending patience, empathy, and beneficence towards others has never been greater. Leaning on your Purpose and leading by example will help navigate the complexity in this new unknown. Watching these unprecedented events unfold, you may not know today what changes you will need to make tomorrow, but you can work to increase stability, reduce fear, and lay the foundation for a far stronger future on the other side.

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