Dr. Nicole Tschierske

Unlocking Work Performance: The Power of Purpose

Do you still manage your team with a „jump when I say jump“ approach? In today’s workplace, purpose plays a crucial role in boosting performance and engagement. Let’s explore the transformative impact of purpose and how you can harness it as a leader.

While the term „purpose“ has become somewhat of a buzzword, there’s substantial evidence that individuals who find meaning in their work perform better and enjoy their roles. As a leader, understanding the connection between purpose and work performance is essential to motivate your team effectively.

People who derive a sense of purpose from their work tend to be more productive. They don’t question tasks just to be disruptive but rather seek the validity behind their assignments. They understand that nothing is more demotivating than investing time and effort into a task without comprehending its purpose, especially when the end result goes to waste. The „why“ behind their work not only motivates them but also enhances their performance.

In 2007, Adam Grant and his colleagues conducted an experiment, which involved callers soliciting alumni donations for university scholarships. Callers who interacted with scholarship recipients and witnessed the transformative impact of their work doubled both their time on the phone and the funds they secured. In contrast, those in the control group, who lacked such interaction, showed no performance improvement.

This experiment and subsequent research demonstrate that understanding the positive impact of our work on others motivates us to invest more effort and, in turn, enhances our performance.

This concept of task significance, which links work to a positive impact on others, dates back to the 1970s and has gained prominence in recent years. 

However, the impact of purpose is highly personal. Not everyone on your team will resonate with your company’s mission statement or the end customer. A leader cannot instill meaning in the minds of team members. What you can do is create an environment that nurtures a sense of purpose.

To achieve this, understand when and how task significance influences engagement and performance. According to Adam Grant, two relational mechanisms contribute to task significance:

1. Perceived Social Impact: This is the belief that your actions benefit others, establishing a psychological link between your daily work and its impact on others. It fosters emotional understanding and motivates greater effort.

2. Perceived Social Worth: This relates to the belief that your contributions are valued and appreciated by others. Feedback highlighting your work’s impact reinforces this belief.

Individual traits also play a role in how task significance affects motivation:

1. Conscientiousness: Individuals low in conscientiousness benefit more from task significance as it demonstrates that their efforts are worthwhile. Highly conscientious individuals put significant effort into their work regardless.

2. Prosocial Values: The importance of promoting the welfare of others influences how task significance motivates individuals. Those with strong prosocial values are more inclined to invest time and energy into their work when it aligns with these values.

Thus, it becomes clear that the impact of purpose varies from person to person. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to increase engagement at work.

To gauge task significance within your team, ask questions such as:

  • How conscious are you of the positive impact of your job on others?
  • Do you believe that others appreciate your work and value your contributions?
  • How does your job provide opportunities to improve the welfare of others?

However, introducing task significance should be done mindfully. Encouraging a sense of purpose might make some team members overly cautious and slow them down in tasks that rely on speed and volume. Others might experience performance anxiety due to the perceived importance of their work.

While these considerations should not discourage you from fostering task significance, they emphasize the importance of being intentional and observing how each individual team member responds. Seeing work as socially significant can make it more meaningful, leading to greater well-being and job performance.

(This article is based on a chapter in Better Work: A Leader’s Guide to Creating Happier, Healthier, and More Productive Workplaces.)

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​