Purpose at Work

"Money motivates neither the best people, nor the best in people. It can move the body and influence the mind, but it cannot touch the heart or move the spirit; that is reserved for belief, principle, and morality." 

— Dee Hock, CEO of Visa

The value of purpose

What motivates someone to get up in the morning and go to work, day after day? Some may think that the answer is pay-- the higher the better. However, while money might prevent dissatisfaction, it does not create satisfaction or engagement. This is one of the many myths regarding money's role in employee motivation-- myths we discussed in this blog post.

People, at their core, are motivated by end goals and the challenges that come with achieving those goals [1]. In other words, what motivates us at work is purpose and the meaning of our work. Much like passion, it is the pursuit of doing something we care about that brings us satisfaction and happiness. 

We live in a time of uncertainty, characterized by growing distrust in organizations [2],  rising global social inequality [3], and increasing online connectivity that makes disconnecting from work difficult [4]. Therefore, purpose and meaningfulness at work may provide a guiding star for organizations navigating these ever-changing waters. 

Purpose impacts performance

Over time, our views of labour and the purpose of work have changed drastically. We have moved past the days of Adam Smith, who saw work as something that should be depersonalized and organized in a scientific manner. Now, we have started adopting more of a Marxist view, where we want people to engage in meaningful work, fulfilling their "species-essence” as Marx would say.

Having a defined organizational purpose has been found to result in stronger financial performance, including venture growth and higher shareholder returns over a 10-year period.

In many jobs, employees are now deciding for themselves how much "effort, attention, [and] care they should be putting into their work [1]. And it is this context which makes purpose so important. We now know that job performance depends heavily on employees' perceptions of their own jobs [5]. Those who perceive their jobs as higher in task significance (or job purpose) also display higher performance [5]. This means that employees who find purpose in their work actually do end up being better performers.

A sense of purpose can also increase employee engagement, as it appeals to two of our most fundamental human needs: belonging and fulfillment. A strong purpose can help employees feel: 1. a sense of belonging within their organization and 2. that their work is more more meaningful, and by extension, more fulfilling [4]. 

 Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist, explored the power of meaning in a 2012 TED Talk by discussing two key experiments. The findings of these experiments suggested that people thrive when they feel a sense of purpose. Moreover, people need to feel like they are making progress in their work to perform at their best. These same sentiments were echoed by former United States President, Barack Obama, who discussed how having a purpose can help guide a person's time, energy, and actions-- ultimately leading them to greater success.[6]

Indeed, employers are beginning to recognize the opportunities that purpose can create for their organizations. Having a defined organizational purpose has been found to result in stronger financial performance, including venture growth [8] and higher shareholder returns over a 10-year period [7]. Purpose also can strengthen an organization’s brand and increase customer loyalty [9].

What's more is that purpose has even been found to impact life expectancy. Findings show that purposeful individuals live longer than their counterparts- regardless of age or retirement [10]. This raises an interesting question: if employees feel that their work has purpose, might that add years to their life and, in turn, to the life of their organization? Given that the life expectancy of organizations has precipitously declined over the past 20 years, this question has many implications for both employee health and well-being, as well as organizational sustainability.

Why do so many organizations struggle with connecting work and purpose?

With so many benefits for employees and organizations, it is not surprising that Canadian business leaders have emphasized the importance of shaping and embedding purpose within organizations. Many believe that it should be, in fact, a fundamental part of management’s role. For example, Mac Van Wielingen states that: 

“We are stewards of society’s capital, of society’s savings no less. If you think of time as a resource, [leaders] must see ourselves as stewards for the long term of our organizations, and for all that we touch and impact, including all people with whom we have contact. This is complex and it is truly an enormous responsibility. I believe that living this broader understanding of purpose is the path to building great businesses.”  

However, purpose does not appear as a fundamental focus on the agendas of leadership teams or boards [11]. This may be due to two factors: 1) A lack of understanding and definition in terms of what purpose is and 2) confusion surrounding the integration of purpose into strategy.

What is purpose?

First is the issue of defining and understanding what constitutes purpose. Though 84% of respondents in a global survey of 474 executives believed that purpose can impact an organization’s ability to transform and adapt in uncertain environments, there is little consensus on how one defines ‘purpose.’ Purpose has been defined as an “aspirational reason for being, that is grounded in humanity and inspires a call to action,” or simply as “a company’s core reason for being” [4]. What these definitions fail to include, though, is that purpose is experienced on multiple levels-- including the employee level, the team/department level, and the organizational level.

What these definitions fail to include, though, is that purpose is experienced on multiple levels - including the employee level, the team/department level, and the organizational level.

Secondly, there remains a disconnect between purpose and strategy. While an organization's management may believe that purpose is important, confusion continues to surround the integration of purpose into an organization. While it is apparent that purpose can lead to positive organizational outcomes, the idea of purpose and how it should be integrated into organizations is underdeveloped and unclear.

Mac Van Wielingen offers a conceptualization of purpose through an organizational lens. This view challenges the traditional and long-standing view that the sole purpose of business is to maximize profit. He argues that, while profit is one aspect of a business's purpose, it is not the whole story. Nor is this the decision-making reality for business leaders in today's society. Mac emphasizes that there is no single variable or maximization function that represents the purpose of a business. It would be easier if this was the case, but to quote Mac:

"the truth is, [business leaders] are never just maximizing one variable – we are always combining, making choices, trading off and optimizing among four variables: profit, risk, time, and human experience" [11].

To put it more plainly, when making strategic decisions, business leaders are of course trying to maximize profit. But these decisions are always murky and multi-faceted. For example, decisions need to get done within a given time period, and there is always an associated amount of risk involved. Leaders, in essence, must try to navigate these murky decisions while also trying to enjoy their experiences and interactions. As Mac states:

“These are the realities. Profit is imperative. Without it a business will not survive. But as a single end point in itself, and as a single principle to guide business decision making, [profit] is insufficient" [11]. 

Thus, while profit maximization is important for a business, the multitude of decision-making factors makes it so an organization's purpose must go beyond just profit.

The multitude of decision-making factors make it so an organization's purpose must go beyond just profit.

So how can you find purpose?

If you are feeling a lack of purpose at work, you don’t necessarily have to switch careers or organizations. Purpose doesn't have to be something all encompassing. Like passion, purpose is about the process rather than an outcome [12]. For example, if you care about helping others, it is the process by which you help others that will bring you meaning and satisfaction, rather than a specific outcome. It can be detrimental if we become too wrapped up in trying to identify a single, specific thing or path that drives us.

Though adoption at the organizational level may take time, there are small changes on a personal level that you can make to highlight the purpose behind your work [13],[14].

  • List your responsibilities: Consider the responsibilities of your role. What parts of your job do you love to do? What tasks would you like to avoid doing? Seek out more opportunities to engage in the the activities you love, or discuss with your team/supervisor to see if you can adjust or redesign tasks that you dislike doing.

  • Remind yourself of the bigger picture: Think about how your task fits into the “bigger picture.” Explore what drives you. Many organizations have a “triple bottom line” that includes social, environmental, and financial performance. If a certain social impact drives you, engage in activities that contribute to those efforts. Furthermore, you should see if your organization has a volunteering initiative, and engage in it if you can.

  • Tap into your “personal purpose drivers": Taking time to do something that you love can help increase happiness and make work more meaningful. Some companies even formally support this by offering programs that help employees devote 10- 20% of their time to a ‘passion project.’
  • Look for purpose in the simple things: Purpose doesn’t necessarily have to be related to world-changing impacts. You can just as easily find purpose through the impact you create in your immediate environment. This can be through intentional interactions in your daily life, or through how you support others in their roles.

How can you foster purpose as a leader?

Use small, unexpected rewards to motivate: An experiment was conducted where 50% of people using a photocopier found a dime in the coin-return slot. When all users were asked to rate their satisfaction level, those who got the dime scored an average of 6.5 out of 7, while those who didn’t scored just 5.6. This shows that when people don't expect to be rewarded, even a small reward can have a large impact [15]. This is also true of employees in the workplace. We’ve all heard stories about CEOs writing personalized thank-you cards. And while actions like these may seem small-- they work.

Provide autonomy: People feel more ownership over tasks or things that they have chosen to contribute to. Take the following study for example. Participants were randomly given either 1. a lottery ticket, or 2. a piece of paper for them to write a random number on, which would then become their ticket. Prior to drawing the winning number, a researcher offered to buy back the participants’ lottery tickets. Since a lottery involves chance, both the assigned and created lottery tickets should have had the same probability of being selected in the draw, and therefore there should have been no difference in value between the two tickets. However, researchers had to pay participants who wrote their own ticket at least five times more than those who were given a ticket. This experiment demonstrates that, when people perceive that they have a choice, they tend to be more committed to that choice. Whether it be a random number they selected, or a task that they were given the freedom to do in their own way, autonomy and "doing things for oneself" can be a strong way of fostering purpose.

Connect work with the end point: Take a page from Adam Grant’s book on how to show employees the power of their work. Grant, an Organizational Psychologist, set out in 2008 to understand the effect of purpose. He wanted to see if, by giving people a stronger sense that their work was meaningful (to them, others, or society), if it would then cause them to work more efficiently and be more successful [16]. In this study, the employees were fundraising callers soliciting alumni donations for a university. Initially, while the callers were responsible for raising money for student scholarships, they had absolutely no contact with any of the students who benefited from their work. Grant allowed a subgroup of the workers to interact with a student scholarship recipient for 10 minutes, learning about the impact the scholarship had on his/her life. One month after these interactions, Grant found that the workers who chatted with the students had more than doubled the amount of time spent on the phone, and the amount of donation money they secured. This experiment highlights the importance of showing individuals how their specific work contributes to an end goal. This is important, as it is a key way of increasing the amount of significance and meaningfulness employees ascribe to their work. 


Purpose is a complex concept, and may be key in helping leaders energize employees and successfully navigate challenging times. By making the choice to engage intentionally at work, and search for meaning within our roles, we take a small step toward integrating purpose into our work and lives.


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This work has been funded by Viewpoint Foundation.

Sources cited:

[1] Dan Airely for TEDxRidelaPlata (2012). What makes us feel good about our work?.

[2] Edelman Trust Barometer. Annual Global Study (2018).

[3] Global Wealth Report (2015).

[4] EY Beacon Institute. State of debate on purpose in business (2017).

[5] Grant, A. The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology. (2008).

[6] Obama delivers lessons on work, purpose, SmartBrief. (2018), http://smartbrief.com/original/2018/05/obama-delivers-lessons-work-purpose?utm_source=brief

[7] Boston Consulting Group. Purpose with the power to transform your organization. (2017).

[8] Baum, J. R., & Locke, E. A., & Kirckpatrick, S. A. Longitudinal study of the relation of vision and vision communication to venture growth in entrepreneurial firms. Journal of applied psychology. (1998).

[9] Vila, O. R., & Bharadwj, S. Competing on social purpose. Harvard Business review. (2016).

[10] Hill, & Turiano. Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality across Adulthood. Psychological Science. (2014).

[11] Mac Van Wielingen’s Fraser Institute Founder’s Award Speech. www.viewpointgroup.ca

[12] The Passion Paradox: A Conversation with Brad Stulberg https://behavioralscientist.org/the-passion-paradox-a-conversation-with-brad-stulberg

[13] 4 Ways to Find Purpose in Any Job, The Muse. https://www.themuse.com/advice/4-ways-to-find-purpose-in-any-job

[14] Five Ways to Find Passion and Purpose in Your Current Career, Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/meimeifox/2016/09/30/five-ways-to-find-passion-and-purpose-in-your-current-career/2/#78dc1af8354a

[15] Cranston, S., & Keller, S. (2013). Increasing the meaning quotient of work. McKinsey. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/increasing-the-meaning-quotient-of-work

[16] Grant. A. The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology. (2008).