What we can learn about purpose & performance from athletes


Kate Goodger, Head of Human Innovation and Performance, Laing O’Rourke, is sick of hearing companies talk about their pursuit of ‘high performing teams’ and ‘organisational purpose’. She wants to call time (and bullshit!) on these terms. She is well placed to do so, given she has extensive experience studying athletes and what leads to their success, including with working with Team GB athletes and medallists at seven Olympic Games; a background she now applies to the corporate world.

Kate Goodger

As Goodger explains in this interview, which she gave us ahead of her appearance at The Watercooler Event, purpose and performance are both personal to each employee; there is no ‘one size fits all’ or a tick box exercise companies can do to arrive at a destination labelled ‘high performance’.

To hear more of her no-nonsense, scientifically-backed views, come along and hear her session on ‘How to Harness Purpose to Drive Wellbeing and Performance’. For now, here’s a taster of her unique perspective…

You started out as a PE teacher before working with athletes – can you tell me a bit more about that?

Yes, being a PE teacher showed me that my real interest was in driving and helping individuals perform. I was always curious about how you unlock capability and potential talent, and was really fortunate to be able to do a PHD, at Loughborough University, which I did on burnout and unlocking potential.

So I progressed to working with athletes while doing my PHD. If an athlete has a really clear, strong sense of purpose, this makes them very hard to beat because purpose is so galvanising. It sits at our very core because we want to know that ‘what I do matters’.

And you believe purpose is biological, not just psychological – is that right?

Yes. Meaningfulness, belonging and purpose are biological needs, as well psychological. If you want to make it hard for someone to perform make sure they don’t feel any value in what they’re doing, cause them to feel isolated from others and give them no sense of purpose.

You might assume, for example, that an athlete’s purpose is purely to win an Olympic medal. Is that real purpose, or does purpose go deeper than that?

It’s much more about  “what does the medal mean to me?”.

If the athlete says “it will demonstrate all the sacrifices I’ve made were worthwhile”, then you know they’re in trouble. If the athlete says “because I don’t want to be anywhere else in the world, this is what I’m here to do and I want to see how good I am”. Then that’s brilliant, because it’s all about their sense of purpose and self mastery versus comparison to others.

The purpose is usually deeper than the medal. It’s about what it symbolises and represents in their life. For many athletes, it’s about being a role model and giving back to the sport. For others, it is that innate drive to self mastery and competitive pursuit of what is possible.

Purpose also gives us perspective, and that’s like a secret weapon. If a business has a strong sense of purpose, it guides that business to make decisions and be consistent when in times of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Purpose is a buzzword in business right now. Any bugbears about this?

People think purpose is often something that’s put on the wall. But it’s not. It’s something deeply ingrained within each of us that energises us.

It really irritates the living daylights out of me when people say “yeah, we’re going to create high performance culture”.

I don’t even know what that means!

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High performance is the outcome, it is a standard but it does not clearly define a culture. It is also an assumption that successful teams are always high functioning, but I’ve worked with successful athletes and teams that are hugely dysfunctional they’ve still delivered despite this.

We have this idea that if we do ‘these things’ then we are high performing.. There’s no ‘one size fits all’. And it is much more about the ‘experience’ people encounter everyday and how that makes you feel. How people feel is a massive determinant of how they will perform.

You see the words ‘high performing teams’ everywhere just now. What would be a better thing to say?

I think Microsoft is on to some really interesting stuff around ‘thriving’ and its definitions around this.

Companies like Microsoft and Unilever are trying to create environments where people can live out their purpose and recognise they want to contribute something that’s greater than themselves.

So, I think it’s about creating environments where individuals can be at their best because they are working on things that matter to them.

Also, they feel valued. Without feeling valued our mind spends its time distracted by whether we feel safe, whether we’re heard, if we can put a hand up with a different idea or to ask for help. A business with an embedded purpose and values set that drives their daily culture cannot only achieve high performance, but also sustainable high performance.

Consistency in results is key.

Businesses worry that ‘if we get people thinking about their purpose, they might conclude they can’t find it here’. Which might be a valid worry, when you open up the discussion?

I would position it more about encouraging personal purpose, and asking an individual what is meaningful to them. So if it is, for example, selling shampoo, they might answer that this job enables me to have the right environment for my kids, so it’s actually nothing to do with the job.

We often don’t appreciate that an absence of purpose within us causes stress and impacts wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be a massive purpose statement directed at changing the world; sometimes individuals deeply connect to an organisations purpose, but many don’t.

For these individuals, their sense of purpose may come from being purposeful in ‘how’ they do their work and show up for others. Or, again, it may be something outside work that gives their job meaning such as providing for a family, being a carer, volunteering, etc.

Purpose is a bedrock, which we can build our life around, and choose the type of work we want to do. It’s not about everybody conforming to an organisational purpose. That doesn’t work.

How do you think the Covid pandemic has affected people’s attitudes to purpose at work?

It shone a light on how purpose can be misaligned to how people are living their lives. Covid enabled us to say things like “actually, I want to spend time with my kids”. It has put the focus more on our social communities.

What would you like to see happen with purpose in the future?

There are two strands to this. The first is creating those work spaces where people can work out what is meaningful to them. And that looks like a line manager saying: what’s important to you? What kind of work is meaningful to you? Where do you want to make a difference? What excites and energises you? Those types of conversations.

Then the second strand is around societal accountability and responsibility and to not – as I call it – ‘purpose bullshit’ and operate superficially.

Purpose metrics help, because they demonstrate a business’s progress against its purpose. But there are still too many businesses out there which declare a purpose but it’s utterly superficial. However, both the employee and the consumer is spotting that more now and recognising it’s not real.

To meet Kate in person, and contribute to the conversation about one of the buzziest topics in the industry – purpose and performance – come along to our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023. 

Kate is talking about “How to Harness Purpose to Drive Wellbeing and Performance“.

The Watercooler, named in recognition of those crucial moments of connection between employees, is a free to attend conference and exhibition which demonstrates that wellbeing IS the future of work. For themes that were ‘hot topics’ at last year’s event, like line manager wellbeing, see this article.

Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.

For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here

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