Purpose’s Role in the Workforce

February 03, 2016 by Meredith Brandt

Across industries, employers are always seeking ways to measure the quality of their workplace and their workforce in order to improve productivity, performance, morale and wellbeing. Traditionally, the analytic tools used to evaluate workplaces relied on measures such as employee engagement. These tools, however, solely gauge workplace environment, which may not be the variable that truly matters in determining and predicting the success of the workplace.


This past year, researchers at NYU in conjunction with the B Corp Imperative, conducted the first annual Workforce Purpose Index as a means to analyze the U.S. workforce. In an interview I conducted with co-founder of Imperative, Arthur Woods, he highlighted the potential impact of this new research. He remarked, “To date, we’ve never been able to look at the workforce beyond its current state. We’ve been able to look at things like satisfaction or engagement, but studies have never been able to get to the core as to why some workers feel fulfilled, and also why those workers are outperforming the others around them.” The Workforce Purpose Index team researched the impact of psychological orientation and motivation and discovered that an employee’s feelings toward work are the most predictive factors in determining employee success and fulfillment. “If engagement is the what, this is the who and why,” said Woods.

According to the study, one’s feelings about work, or his or her work orientation, plays the largest role in predicting job performance. The study found that people primarily fall into two categories: purpose-oriented or not. Those who are purpose-oriented workers see work as a means of fulfillment and betterment for both themselves and others. Non-purpose-oriented workers, on the other hand, view work as a means of income or status. The study found that, despite purpose-oriented workers making up only 28% of the U.S. workforce, these employees are “the most valuable and highest potential segment of the workforce, regardless of industry and role.” They are found to have the longest expected tenure, the greatest likelihood to assume a leadership role, and the highest level of fulfillment in the workplace. The goal of the study was to uncover where purpose-oriented workers currently are and how to best support them to help them thrive.

An interesting fact to highlight, however, is that a person’s work orientation cannot be changed. While this legitimizes the analytic power of the study, it also requires us to rethink how we can improve the workforce. “It’s hard to change people in terms of how they look at work, because it’s difficult to shift our perception without a core life event causing us to do so,” Woods said.

Therefore, Woods and the study claim there are two potential ways in order to improve a company: (1) attract and retain the purpose-oriented workers already in the workforce; and (2) build a company culture around a fulfillment-based, purpose-oriented model. In the way that investment banks build incentives around economic gain, the workforce can be anchored to a purpose-oriented archetype by promoting intrinsic values. Encourage employees to do things that matter to allow them to grow, and give them the opportunity to connect with those around them. By doing so, a company creates a better space for purpose-oriented workers to thrive.

Across demographics, roles, and industries, the study found that purpose-oriented workers consistently outperformed their peers. Millennials, while perhaps the most vocal about their desire for a fulfilling career, are not the only ones demanding purpose. The findings from the study are cross-generational. Whether a Millennial or a Baby Boomer, a worker who feels fulfilled by his or her relationships, impact, and growth with a company will thrive in the workforce. The only way to create a generation of purpose-oriented workers is to have parents and educators teach children that fulfillment is the primary goal of work. By instilling these values in children early on, we can perhaps shape a work culture that is more productive, more proactive, and ultimately more positive.



Meredith Brandt

Meredith Brandt

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