Dr. Nicole Tschierske

The Impact of Purpose On Work Performance

Have you ever come across the meme that reads “When I say Jump! you say How high?”? Unfortunately, a lot of managers still distribute work among their teams like this. But I believe the days when this attitude worked are over. Because purpose has an impact on work performance.

So what does this mean for you as a leader? That when you ask your team to (metaphorically) jump, they’re more likely to reply with another question – why? And quite rightly so.

That’s because people who live their purpose at work tend to be more productive. By making sure what they’re asked to do has a valid reason for being, they’re not trying to be troublemakers. They simply recognise that there’s nothing more demotivating than putting hours of blood, sweat, and tears into a task and not knowing what the point of all this is. And that’s even worse when you see the product of all your hard work ending up being discarded and going straight into the bin. Knowing why we do a piece of work is important – it not only motivates us but also increases our performance. 

Why purpose impacts work performance

In 2007 Grant et al conducted an experiment where they asked callers to get alumni donations for university scholarships. None of the callers had had any previous contact with the recipients of the scholarships. But during the experiment, some of the callers were allowed to talk to some of the students who received a scholarship and hear what a difference the donations made to the students‘ lives. As a result, the callers who met the students doubled the time they spent on the phone in order to get donations. But, interestingly, they also doubled the amount of funds they secured. Callers in the control group, on the other hand, didn’t get the chance to meet the students. And they showed no improvement in their performance.

Based on this, more research was conducted, and evidence shows that understanding the positive impact we have on others motivates us to put more effort into our work. And in turn, that improves our performance. 

The idea dates back to the 1970s when Hackman & Oldham (1976) proposed that motivation is not just up to the personality and the attitude that the employee comes to work with, but also due to the design of the work itself. One of the concepts introduced here (and further researched by Adam Grant and others) is task significance. This relates to believing that our job has a positive impact on other people.

In this way, task significance contributes to the meaning and sense of purpose that we experience at work. And this idea has recently become more widespread following leadership expert Simon Sinek’s famous TED Talk about starting with why and other books and literature that advocate for purpose-driven organisations. Examples of this are The Purpose Effect by Dan Pontefract (2016) or Leading by Meaning by Anette Suzanne Fintz (2014). Today, you can hardly find a company without a purpose or mission statement. Even teams or functions within companies create their own mission statement to highlight what they do and why.

What gives you purpose at work?

So does this mean you simply have to get your team in contact with the beneficiaries of their work or create a mission statement and they’ll be all fired up and motivated? Not quite. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that – this doesn’t work for everyone. So I suggest you check in with yourself and try and answer the following questions.

  • How much meaning for your daily work do you get from your company’s mission statement? Could you recite it by heart?
  • How much do you personally care about – or even know – the end customer of your company?

And moving beyond yourself, now consider your team. In my experience, there will always be someone who’s doing an excellent job and is very engaged, but doesn’t care about the company’s purpose. Can you identify any of these people in your team?

The truth is that the meaning we see in our jobs and our daily tasks is highly personal, and a leader can’t simply create meaning in their team members‘ heads. What you can do is create an environment that supports meaningfulness (Bailey, & Madden, 2016).

How to create an environment that supports meaningfulness

So how can you create such an environment for your team? To answer this question, let’s first understand how and when task significance actually impacts engagement and performance. From Adam Grant (2008) we learn that there are two relational mechanisms (i.e. processes that influence your connections to other people) that contribute to task significance.

The first one is the belief that your own actions benefit others. This is what psychologists call perceived social impact, and it helps us establish a psychological link between what we do each day at work and the impact this has on others. More than intellectual awareness, this belief helps us to emotionally comprehend the difference we make, and, in turn, this motivates us to put in more effort.

The second relational mechanism is the belief that your contributions are valued and appreciated by others. This is also known as perceived social worth. In other words, the feedback we receive shows us that our actions and the work we do have an impact on other people’s lives.

“Psychologists have suggested that the pursuit of social worth is a basic human motivation (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Ryan & Deci, 2000), and when employees feel that their personal, unique efforts are valued, they are more motivated to contribute, as demonstrated by both organizational researchers (Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002) and psychologists (Harkins & Petty, 1982; Rosen, Mickler, & Collins, 1987).” (Grant, 2008)

Individual aspects that impact task significance

Also, Adam Grant proposes that there are two individual aspects that influence whether task significance motivates you to put in more effort or not. The first one is conscientiousness. This is defined as the degree to which you tend to be disciplined, dependable, organised, goal-oriented, and persistent.

In other words, task significance has a greater impact on those of us who are low in conscientiousness because it shows us that putting in the effort is worthwhile. However, those of us who have very conscientious personalities take so much pride in effective performance that task significance (or knowing the impact we have on others) has less influence on our performance. That’s because people with this trait put high levels of effort into their work anyway.

The second individual aspect that can motivate people to increase effort is to do with prosocial values. This term relates to how important it is to us to promote the welfare of others. Here task significance has more impact on those of us with strong prosocial values compared to those of us with weaker ones. Because when prosocial values are important to us, and we see our job matching those values, we’re more willing to invest the time and energy for effective performance.

So the above points seem to support the case we made earlier – i.e that what makes work meaningful (and what motivates us to do better work) is individual. And as a result, simply ’slapping on purpose‘ isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to increasing engagement at work. 

What impacts your team’s task significance?

So here are some questions you can ask your team to ‘take the temperature’ when it comes to task significance.

  • How conscious are you of the positive impact your job has on others?
  • How aware are you of the ways in which your work benefits others?
  • Do you feel you have a positive impact on others through your work?
  • Do you believe that others appreciate your work and value your contributions? 
  • How does your job provide you opportunities to substantially improve the welfare of __________?
  • Do you think that a lot of _________ can be positively impacted by how well your job gets done?

Further considerations on work performance

When it comes to task significance, can there be too much of a good thing? I have two more considerations for you to use this tool mindfully (Anderson & Stritch 2016).

First of all, how do you evaluate performance? Do you focus on quality of work? Or are speed and quantity more important? What may happen is that when you increase task significance (i.e. increase your team members‘ belief in the positive impact a task has) they become very cautious about how they go about a piece of work. The more deliberate effort might slow them down, which can reduce performance that’s mainly measured in speed and volume of work done.

Another thing that might happen to some team members is that knowing how important their actions are to the welfare of others might spur performance anxiety or pressure. This, in turn, can reduce their performance due to all the doubt and insecurities that creep up and can start holding someone back.

These considerations, however, aren’t meant to discourage you from finding ways to help increase task significance for your team. The intention here is to caution you to be intentional and observe how each individual team member responds. When we view our work as more socially significant, we start to see what we do as more meaningful. And experiencing meaningfulness in any area of our lives is linked with greater well-being and high job performance (Allan et al, 2018).

Practical steps you can take to impact task performance

Here are a few practical steps you can take to help your team see the value of a task and therefore increase their task significance and performance.

1. Explain the WHY first and the impact after

When setting goals or distributing tasks, take time not only to specify what outcome you expect but also why something is needed. Context matters. How does this task or goal relate to upstream/downstream processes in the company? How does it fit with the business objectives? Why is now the right time to work on this? And what might be the consequences if this piece of work doesn’t get done?

2. Share stories about the positive impact your team’s work has on people 

Find ways to illustrate to your team in what way their work positively impacts others. This might be in the shape of hearing from end consumers about how the company’s product or service enhances their lives, for example. How? Perhaps by engaging in conversations, watching a recording, or reading or hearing stories directly from those impacted. 

To do this, you don’t even have to go as far as asking the end consumers. Sometimes all you need to do is to show how other teams or functions can benefit from things like comprehensive and easy-to-understand reports, accurate and timely data and information, or high-quality intermediate work products.

3. Involve your team in finding out why tasks are important

Think about doing a team exercise about the routine and mundane tasks that rarely anyone enjoys, such as time recording or maintaining spreadsheets with up-to-date information. 

You can do this simply by identifying some of these tasks and then asking your team questions such as:

  • What is that good for?
  • What becomes possible because of that?
  • Or why is this important?

How to understand why a task matters

Let’s take the example of writing a monthly report. Why is it needed? So that the leadership team is informed of the situation and can make better decisions. But also, the report can help highlight the value of the team and therefore increase job security for everyone involved.

How about being asked to fill in a spreadsheet for time recordings? Why is that helpful? Because it allows you to accurately bill clients, which in turn helps you earn money and build trust with your clients. A trusting relationship with clients means more repeated business for the company, which helps the organisation thrive and grow.

Also, filling a spreadsheet for time recording can allow you to shine a light on resourcing within the team. That means you won’t be asked to take on more projects than you can handle and will avoid getting into a situation where the workload is too high and staff experiences burnout as a result. Instead, you’ll have healthier and more productive team members.

However, be prepared for the flip side of this too. Asking your team why a task is important may lead to the conclusion that there’s simply no good reason for continuing to do something. And when that happens, it’s time to investigate and, if necessary, drop the task altogether.

4. Record accomplishments and their impact

When helping your team to understand the reason for tasks, keep a list of accomplishments. Fill it in and review it regularly because this activity ticks multiple boxes from a motivational and well-being perspective. 

  • It shows progress and accomplishment (even small wins count!)
  • It gives praise and recognition to those who accomplished the task.
  • But also, it stimulates the positive emotion of gratitude and shows appreciation to those involved. 
  • And finally, it reveals the impact of the achievement so that it becomes visible and clear. 
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5. Encourage taking initiative 

You may find that some team members don’t respond to any of the suggestions above. After all, people are just different. And depending on the (company) culture, some of the exercises may be perceived as odd or even inauthentic and manipulative.

If you find yourself in this situation, there’s something else you could try. Researchers Fay et al (2022) “demonstrated that proactive work behaviour was related to meaning, above and beyond the benefits of one’s work for other people.” What does it mean for you? That proactive work behaviour (i.e. any self-initiated effort to effect future-oriented change at work) allows us to experience our work as meaningful. This is because it helps us to look past the present and gain meaning from a connection to the future. 

The researchers also found that proactivity is even more effective (and therefore important) when team members are unsure about the future. And we all know how often this happens, as we face so much unpredictability in recent times. As the person in charge, your leadership style matters. And that’s because it encourages proactive work behaviour, autonomy, and social support.

So how can you encourage proactive work behaviour? Ask your team:

  • How do you think you could tackle this problem?
  • What opportunities are there for you to take initiative immediately, even when others don’t? 
  • You’ve been thinking about this for a while now, what have you decided to do next?

But also, try and read the room and be mindful of how your team members respond. There’s a danger that proactive work behaviour might cause strain if they overexert themselves or commit to too many tasks at once.

So what steps will you be taking to help your team better understand the purpose of their work?   

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​