Purpose at Work: Why Work Should Be Meaningful

Pim de Morree
Written by Pim de Morree January 22, 2016

In his revolutionary book, Reinventing Organizations, Frédéric Laloux advocates that such organizations must be seen as having a life and sense of direction of their own.

Instead of trying to predict and control the future we must try to listen to what the organization wants to become, what purpose it serves at the moment, and what purpose it wants to serve in the future.

"Purpose? What are you talking about?"

Try to think about the purpose of your own organization for a while. Don't be surprised if you cannot identify it, you're not the only one that doesn't know the purpose of his or her organization. Mostly it's because purposes are formulated in overly wordy, vague, and ambiguous mission statements that almost nobody in the company can reproduce. You can imagine it's hard to derive inspiration from that. Especially when these mission statements are seen as necessary evil to cover up the fact that the company just wants to make money. Organizations should address this issue rather quickly. That's exactly what KPMG, one of the Big Four Auditors, recently did. But more about that later.

24a4f0b

First some more insights about purpose at work and what actually drives us as recently described by Josh Bersin from one of the other Big Four Auditors; Deloitte. In his Imperative that claims that people have two main reasons to work;

  • External motivation; we decide to work for financial gain and/or personal status.
  • Internal motivation: we decide to work to help others, to contribute, or for personal fulfillment.

It is reported that in 2015 only 28% of the American workforce is motivated to go to work by internal motivation. We can qualify these people as 'purpose driven' and we can find them in diverse roles and industries, from bus drivers to CEOs. It turns out that the other 72% of the workforce define work around financial gain or achieving social status and advancement. They are mainly focused on external motivations and have a 'colder' relationship with work. This makes us sad, and should make you sad too.

We can also observe some trends in the degree of motivation related to work. As you might imagine, artists are the most purpose driven group where laborers and hourly workers are the least. Of the interviewed CEOs 50% claim to be purpose driven, of the VP's it is a mere 39%. The educational and non-profit workers score relatively high with 48% and 46% of the workforce being purpose oriented.

However, this still means that the majority of these workforces are still motivated by external stimuli. In the other sectors the purpose motivation is shockingly low. For example, only 32% of the healthcare workers are driven by internal motivation. The technology, governmental and manufacturing workers score even lower. Of all the groups, only around 20% claim to be purpose oriented.

So, what can we do about it?

For inspiration we can take a look at the case of KPMG (professional services, 162.000 employees). Bruce Pfau, KPMG's Vice Chair of HR and Communications, recently wrote an inspiring article in the Harvard Business Review.

Convinced that today's workforce wants to be more than their paycheck, KPMG launched an initiative aimed at inspiring their already high-moral workforce. Their goal was to reach new levels of engagement by re-framing and elevating the meaning and purpose of their work.

First they asked their workforce to look at their work from a different perspective. KPMG wanted to move away from the idea that their employees see themselves as just another bunch of professionals doing a financial job. They tried to build a stronger emotional connection to the firm by reframing the employees daily roles. They encouraged their workforce to tap more from the internal source of motivation.

To look at themselves as members of a profession that helps millions of people around the world making better and wiser financial decisions. The following "We Shape History!" video was made and distributed around the company to fuel the internal stimuli.

Subsequently everyone in the company, from intern to CEO, was asked to share their own story about how their work is making a difference in the world. It turned out to be a huge success. They received 42.000 stories, partly because the company offered an incentive of two extra paid days off if they would reach the goal of 10.000 stories.

After this higher purpose initiative, an engagement survey was conducted. In particular, some very interesting findings can be derived from the comparison between survey scores of two different groups;

  • KPMG employees with managers that were actively involved and openly communicating the higher purpose.
  • KPMG employees with managers that were not communicating the higher purpose.
KPMG results1

KPMG found a strong association between leaders who communicate actively about the higher purpose of their work and the raise in engagement and morale of their team. The exact figures can be found in the figure above. If leaders don't discuss purpose, the engagement and morale of the workforce decreases significantly.

The 'disengaged' group is also reported to be three times more likely to think about leaving the company. The actual employee turnover rate illustrates this rather well, 5,6% versus 9,1%! An interesting fact is that there is no difference found across generations of employees. Motivation based on higher purpose seems to be equal among Millennials, Baby Boomers and Generation X.

With this relative simple example it is shown that higher purpose represents a huge opportunity to increase your own work engagement and motivation levels. We would like to challenge you to take some time to rethink your own motivation and how you might increase it. It has the tremendous potential to make you happier, healthier and more productive in your daily life.

Try to find or define a clear mission for your organizational goals. From those goals, try to distill your own unique higher purpose at work. You can ask yourself the same question as the people at KPMG did: "how can I share the story about how my work is making a difference in the world?"

Written by Pim de Morree
Pim de Morree
As co-founder of Corporate Rebels I focus on: researching, writing, speaking, and building our company.
Read more
Sep 03, 2023
The Purpose Dance: Shared and Individual Beats at the Heart of Organizational Impact
Marc-Peter Pijper Written by Marc-Peter Pijper
My wife and I, accompanied by our friends, often enjoy attending music festivals. What unites us is our mutual love for live music and the…
Read more
Aug 20, 2023
Scaling the Right Way: Clarasys' Path Forward with Progressive Principles
Klara Nenadlova Written by Klara Nenadlova
At Clarasys, our core purpose is to make a lasting difference to the way how people work, live, and grow. As an independent consultancy…
Read more
Jun 14, 2023
Steward-ownership: Choosing Purpose Over Profit
Gijsbert Koren Written by Gijsbert Koren
This post is part of an ongoing series with inspiring stories about steward-owned companies that are changing the game. Steward-ownership…
Read more
May 11, 2023
Map of Meaning: Change The Meaning of Work Instead Of Organizational Structure
Pim de Morree Written by Pim de Morree
'Why am I here'? Ever wondered that, at work? How much you value the answer to that question, can be outlined with the map of meaning. Read…
Read more
Mar 08, 2023
Steward-ownership: For Entrepreneurs Who Want to Make a Positive Impact
Gijsbert Koren Written by Gijsbert Koren
Have you heard about steward-ownership? If not, you probably heard that Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, is giving away his company to…
Read more
Feb 22, 2023
The Corporate Rebels Handbook Series - What to Expect (and Not Expect) When Working at Corporate Rebels
Pim de Morree Written by Pim de Morree
This post is part of an ongoing series that gives you an insider’s look at the Corporate Rebels company handbook. If you’re new to this…
Read more
Read all articles

Download: Free Guide

Unlock our in-depth guide on trends, tools, and best practices from over 150 pioneering organizations.

Subscribe below and receive it directly in your inbox.

    We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at any time.