Purpose Drives Performance

Science tells us purpose-oriented people take on harder challenges, stay longer with their employers, and become leaders. Why aren’t we designing more systems to support them?

A few years ago, I was introduced to groundbreaking research on work orientations by Michigan’s Amy Wrzesniewski and Swarthmore’s Barry Schwartz. In studying people working in universities and hospitals, their team found that across all roles roughly one-third were wired to see work as primarily about self-fulfillment and serving others. The other two-thirds saw work as a necessary evil in their lives, as means to paying their bills or gaining esteem among their family and peers.

These observations were mind blowing for me. Remarkably, Amy, Barry and their colleagues found that:

People who are intrinsically oriented to find work fulfilling are more likely to be higher performers and experience greater well being. Not surprisingly, these “purpose-oriented” workers made the most desirable employees

It struck me that if we are going to increase the level of passion, creativity and satisfaction with our jobs, these workers are the ones we need to understand and learn from. What makes them tick?

We needed to measure who is experiencing the highest levels of purpose today. Why? Measuring employee engagement is nothing new. But survey after survey has missed the elephant in the room: to identify people who are intrinsically motivated to find purpose in their work.

So, we designed a new survey to measure work orientation in the workforce. It would help identify purpose-oriented workers. It would measure their performance and job satisfaction compared to their non-purpose oriented peers.

The result is the Workforce Purpose Index which was developed in collaboration with Dr. Anna Tavis at New York University. We surveyed a representative sample of the US workforce using a randomised national survey across sectors, jobs and demographics to understand and measure the level of fulfilment and meaning we experience in our jobs.

Our goal was to find the right predictive measure for someone to thrive at work.

The survey design was inspired by our work with over a dozen companies and tens of thousands of professionals. The key metric we have all been seeking is simple: the measure of what percentage of the workforce or members of an organisation are purpose-oriented.

In 2015 only 28% of the US workforce overall was purpose-oriented. They are sprinkled across every job and industry — from baristas to teachers, from welders to philosophers, and CEOs. However, an overwhelming majority — 72% of US workers — are missing out on experiencing fulfilling careers because they aren’t wired to see the potential of work.

We discovered that having purpose at work does not come from a fancy job title, and has nothing to do with working for a non-profit. To have a high level of fulfilment, people want to feel their work makes an impact — whether for their client, peers, company, or society as a whole. They want to be challenged and try new things. They want to connect with others and have real relationships.

We found that purpose-oriented workers naturally seek out opportunities to create meaning in their jobs. They get to know their peers, and volunteer for challenging projects. Moreover, our study confirmed the Yale research team’s finding that purpose-oriented workers are overall better at their jobs. We also found that they are significantly more likely to have longer tenures at their organisations, rise to top leadership positions, and experience greater well-being and satisfaction with their jobs.

The biggest implications may be in the demographic data. While millennials are supposedly the generation most concerned with having meaningful careers, baby boomers edge them out when it comes to being purpose-oriented. Women are 10% more likely to be purpose-oriented than men, yet are severely underrepresented in leadership roles across all industries. We found that race and ethnicity have no bearing on whether someone is purpose-oriented.

Purpose-oriented individuals represent a more diverse and effective workforce than our current HR, management systems support. And, let’s face it, the findings give the lie to our implicit biases when it comes to hiring and advancing women, baby boomers and minorities. They underscore the need for companies to hire the most diverse workforce out there using work orientation as the only guide.

Towards a Purpose-Oriented Workforce

Despite the low numbers of purpose-oriented workers, there is good news. We are already seeing a positive shift. Across the two industries studied through the Yale team’s research — healthcare and education — we found a 10% increase in the number of purpose-oriented workers since the 1997 study.

An increase in purpose-oriented workers would likely boost the economy given higher performance. First, it would improve our level of satisfaction with our jobs, where we spend the majority of our lives. Second, it would boost our wellbeing and improve healthcare outcomes. Third, it would likely lead to more ethical companies.

Generation Z may be already driving this change. A new Imperative study of university students at three major colleges found that 31% of college students today are interested, in lieu of declaring a “major,” in declaring a “purpose” and selecting courses based on obtaining knowledge that would help them build their careers around it.

Most of the platforms used by human resources today are optimized for non-purpose-oriented people. They are about control and extrinsic motivation. With the growing science of purpose and demand for it, new talent solutions that are optimized for purpose and the most desirable segment of the workforce will be able to disrupt the market.

About The Author

Aaron Hurst is a globally recognised social entrepreneur who works to create communities that are empowered to realise their potential. He is the CEO of Imperative, a B Corp advocating for Purpose-Oriented Workers and supporting the organisations that embrace them.

Widely known for his thought leadership, he is the author of The Purpose Economy (2014) and a regular advisor and thought partner for many global brands. He has written for or been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg TV and was named a LinkedIn Influencer. He is the author of Fast Company's Purposeful CEO profile series.