How to motivate the purposeless

How to motivate the purposeless

When it comes to increasing employee motivation, the carrot and the stick have been joined by a more modern tool: purpose. Ever since Amy Wrzesniewski’s finding in 1997 that people tend to view their work as a job, a career or a calling and – crucially – the third that fall into the latter group tend to be happiest at work and home, leaders have looked for ways to help people find the meaning behind the daily grind. While that’s pretty straightforward if you’re heading up a charity, say, or a team of paediatricians, for many businesses it presents a challenge. How do you ‘make’ people engage with your company’s mission if they’re fundamentally not bothered? What if somebody believes their calling lies elsewhere and is just biding their time before they realise their dream?

Plenty of people (two-thirds, if Wrzesniewski’s statistics hold true today) turn up to work and do an excellent job without having a higher-level sense of purpose. And actually, that’s ok. Not every organisation has that “putting a man on the moon”-type mission statement. What’s more, it’s unrealistic to expect every employee to feel like their current role is their calling. While savvy managers do their best to help their team members spot the calling in their careers, it’s a fairly thankless task. The strongest callings are intrinsically motivated; it’s incredibly difficult to make somebody connect with a mission they have little natural interest in. But rather than abandoning it altogether, we can look to different types of purpose that are just as important for driving employee performance.

The first is task purpose – the feeling that what I’m doing isn’t futile. In one experiment, participants were paid ever-decreasing amounts to assemble as many Lego figures as they liked. Half had their work displayed in front of them; half had it disassembled immediately. The first group was significantly more productive. Feeling that a task isn’t pointless is a huge morale and performance booster. In another study, researchers analysed 12,000 workday diaries and found the single biggest difference between ‘best’ and ‘worst’ days at work was making progress. No matter what the actual work, a sense that you’re progressing is the key to having more ‘best’ days.

The second type of purpose is collective: being in it together. Research proves that top performing businesses are those where everybody’s goals align to the same overall aim. Beyond having the same end goal, teams in which members respect each other and get along tend to be higher performing and more willing to go the extra mile. Being aware of the impact of your work on those around you makes it matter more.

Then there is social purpose; the sense of giving back that we usually associate with finding meaning at work. Interestingly, Wrzesniewski surveyed employees across a range of occupations and found a roughly equal number of people in the job, career or calling categories, no matter what their actual role. You don’t necessarily have to contribute to the greater good to have a sense of purpose. What matters is the mindset; people who can see the ultimate benefits of their work are happier, more fulfilled and more productive. That benefit might be to society – in one study when fundraisers met the person their work impacted, their outputs increased by 200% – or it might be closer to home – seeing a team member get that promotion, for example. Corporate Social Responsibility projects tap into the business benefits of social purpose too: employees who volunteer perform better at work, even if the volunteering has nothing to do with their day job.

So there you have it: emphasise progress, help people to connect with those around them and highlight the wider impact of their work. Don’t give up on those who haven’t found their purpose – just show them where to look.

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