The Power of Purpose at Work | Corporate Spring

The Power of Purpose at Work

Written by Annicken R. Day
November 12, 2020

“The two most important days in your life is the day you were born and the day you find out why.”

(Mark Twain)

Purpose can be explained as the reason for something to exist or to be being done. In business, some refer to it as their “why”; the meaning of their business, the core of their existence. Others don’t think about it much. But surprisingly many think that their only purpose at work is to make shareholders happy, which is, according to the late Jack Welch, “…the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy,” he famously said.

Results, profit, and shareholder value are usually the outcomes of work well done. And work well done is the outcome of engaged and motivated people, according to research published in Harvard Business Review. And this leads us to the million-dollar question: what engages and motivates people at work?


What Engages and Motivates People at Work?

Let’s start out with what doesn’t. For many years many companies have built their people-strategy and performance management systems on the premise that people primarily are extrinsically motivated; driven by rewards (like money and prestige) and scared of the opposite (like criticism or being fired).

This management approach, also known as the “carrot & stick method”, has proven to be effective – on donkeys. But not so much on human beings. In his brilliant TED talk The Puzzle of Motivation, Daniel Pink explains this more in depth, but let me give you the short version here:

While extrinsic motivation indeed can lead to some short-term results, behavioral economics as well as neuroscientific research shows that learning, growth, creativity, and sustainable performance primarily comes from intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is when we want to do something simply because it’s enjoyable and feels great, not because it may lead to an external reward. One of the most powerful intrinsic motivators is purpose; the feeling that what we do is meaningful and important; not only to ourselves but also to others. And that is as true in business as in life.


The Connection Between Purpose and Business Success

In PwC’s Putting Purpose to Work workplace study, 79% of the leaders surveyed said they believed their purpose was important to their business success. Yet only 34% said that their organization’s purpose was a guidepost for decision making in their leadership team. The PwC study also found that people, and millennials in particular, want to work for companies with a purpose, and when they find their company’s purpose meaningful, they are 5.3 times more likely to stay.

At the same time, a Gallup survey found that only 33% of employees feel they work for a company with a meaningful purpose and many employees struggle to see the purpose of their jobs (except from getting a paycheck). The lack of meaningful work is believed to be one reason why the majority of the workforce say they feel disengaged in their jobs.

A study from London Business School found that employees who work for companies with a purpose are more engaged and perform better, and businesses that are driven by purpose outperform those who are only trying to maximize shareholder value. Mr. Jack Welch was clearly on to something…

How to Create a Purpose

Having a purpose gives people meaning, provides direction and inspiration in their work.

When teams get together and are encouraged to think big, discuss, and play with ideas of how their company or team is making a difference in the world, (or in someone’s world); energy, and pride, engagement, and loyalty typically increase.

If you want to engage your team in such an activity, I would recommend making it a bit playful to inspire people’s creativity.

You could do a visualization exercise, such as asking them to come up with a frontpage or news article 5-10 years into the future that talks about the difference you’ve made for your customers, for your community or for the world (depending on your levels of ambition).

Or you could ask your team to create a drawing that depicts how they’re making an impact, make picture collages, or come up with firechat stories, all designed to speak to people’s minds and hearts.

A purpose isn’t supposed to be tangible or rational. The best purposes are aspirational, inspirational, and perhaps a bit emotional. They express what you value, what you stand for and who you are. When I think about our purpose at Corporate Spring I feel both inspired and emotional, as well as it reminds us every day of why we exist: to create a better worklife for all, for the benefit of people, profit, and planet. 

A purpose is not a plan. It’s a reason for existing. It guides our choices and priorities and gives us meaning. It reminds us of why we do what we do.  And that is incredibly fulfilling.


Making Your Purpose Come Alive

The effect of a purpose statement is to a large extent determined by the way it’s used.

Studies show that leaders who actively use and refer to their purpose when communicating with their teams; and explain strategic choices and decisions in relation to their purpose and values, are far more effective in leading change and getting people behind decisions, including the more uncomfortable ones.

When people understand why, they can easier accept the how and the what more easily.

When you make purpose a guiding star with your team, and in your leadership role; people will want to work for and with you, feel more inspired in their work, be motivated to give their very best – and great performance will follow.

Purpose is the first of the five building blocks in The Corporate Spring Model for creating inspired, high-performing team cultures. You can learn more about purpose and how to work with the five building blocks for high-performing teams here.

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