Making Work Matter: 3 Ways to Build a Purpose-Driven Culture

Just 13 percent of the world likes going to work.

That means that nearly nine out of 10 workers from across the globe do not feel enthusiastic and prideful in what they will end up spending over 35 percent of their waking lives doing.

While this statistic is undoubtedly saddening, the economic implications are equally disturbing. Gallup estimates that disengaged workers cost the economy almost $500 billion per year in lost productivity.

So what fosters employee engagement?

The answer may lie not in what you do, but in why the work exists in the first place; it’s purpose.

The Science of Purpose

In fact, employees who have a strong sense of purpose are 4 times more likely to be engaged in their work, 64 percent more likely to be fulfilled, and even have a mortality rate 23 percent less than those who don’t have a sense of purpose.

Purpose does not just benefit individuals. Companies who put purpose first have a growth rate of three times their competitors who don’t and outperform the market by 15:1.

Purpose doesn’t just happen because you have a well-worded mission statement. Purpose is an ongoing strategy that must be proven through action and held as critically important by leadership.

Building a purpose-driven culture is as important as any strategic exercise a modern organization will undertake.


Here are three research-backed ways to start building a purpose-driven culture.


 1. Cultivate a shared, common purpose.

In 1944, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel designed a study in which participants were asked to view a simple, short animation depicting moving shapes. (You can view the original here.)

The researchers asked participants a simple question: “What happened?”

Nearly all of the research subjects created elaborate and emotional stories. The big triangle was a bully. The little triangle was trying to escape with the little circle. The little circle was scared.

What did you see?

What actually happened in this animation?

The answer is: absolutely nothing.

The animation was random - with randomly sized shapes in random motion, and no story attached to them.

The Heider and Simmel study proved that the human brain is wired to attribute and construct meaning out of chaos. In all of the randomness of our days, work, and lives we are all searching for and constructing meaning.

The same is true in every organization. And if organizations don’t orient people toward a common meaning, they will create their own, which can waste incredible amounts of energy and time.

Developing, espousing, and enacting a higher organizational purpose, therefore, can be powerful.

A higher organizational purpose is not a mission statement. A mission statement is a formal summary of the aims and values of a company, organization, or individual.

A higher organizational purpose, on the other hand, is a deeply held, shared sense of directedness thoughtfully created, espoused, and enacted by the organization to reflect the organization’s contributions to the broader society.

By reflecting on why your organization exists in the world, and focusing on how the product or service improves people’s lives, a shared sense of meaningfulness emerges.

And when people believe in that purpose, values and behaviors change.


2. Shift your focus to the greater good.

There is a human being at the end of every supply chain on planet Earth. Empowering your employees to focus more on the greater good of the humans you inevitably serve can cultivate a compelling workplace and drive results.

In a controlled experiment, Wharton School management professor Adam Grant found that callers at a university fundraising center who spent just ten minutes directly listening to a scholarship recipient’s story spent more than double the amount of time on the phone and generated triple the donations compared to the callers who had no contact.

When employees perceive that their organization holds such pro-social values as humanity, benevolence, and vision, they are more likely to build a stronger emotional commitment to the organization that reduces turnover, improves engagement, and positively impacts performance.

How are pro-social values enacted in your organization? Are they emphasized in your recruitment plan, on-boarding and training, performance evaluations, and rewards structure? They should be.

People who live out these pro-social values show more care for their co-workers, deliver better customer service, and above all are happier.

The sense of a higher purpose put into action by pro-social values creates a climate where people want to come to work – and yes, that affects the bottom line.

Sharing real customer stories, encouraging volunteer work, and rewarding employees for serving one another and people (not targets and sales goals) are all strategies to start building a pro-social (and purpose-driven) work culture.


3. Make people feel like they matter.

Belonging and significance are basic human needs and yet they are often overlooked at work.

We often wait for someone do go above and beyond or do a great job before affirming them. The problem is that research has found that people go above and beyond more when they are affirmed and they feel like they matter.

Building a culture that authentically values and seeks employees’ voices, encourages collaboration, and makes it clear that people are cared for can boost both engagement and performance.

And, it’s pretty simple.

Answer this question: How do you know that someone cares about you outside of work?

If you’re like most people you thought things like, “They listen to me.” “They tell me.” “They make time for me.” And so on.

Now go and do those things at work.

When people feel a sense of belonging and that they matter, they feel like they’re a part of something important – something that serves a bigger global purpose.

They feel engaged.

Zach Mercurio