The Power of Purpose

We live in a capitalist society where the pursuit and maximization of profit has become the sole purpose of the overwhelming majority of organizations. The capitalist system is built on a reward scheme where organizations mainly compensate and motivate employees through monetary rewards. This system has been hugely successful over the years and helped to create some of the biggest multinational corporations in the world.

In recent years the sustainability and effectiveness of this system has however been challenged by employees who are no longer motivated by money, but rather want to make a meaningful contribution to the world through the work that they do. The concept of finding purpose in one’s occupation has become most relevant in the millennial generation. An ever-increasing number of employees, especially millennials, are starting to question the impact that their work has, not only on their own lives, but the lives of others. They are no longer willing to offer their compulsory, never mind digressionary, effort to organizations whose sole purpose is profit maximization.

Traditional performance based monetary reward schemes are relics from the industrial revolution, where employees were rewarded based on their ability to perform basic mechanical tasks. In the knowledge economy that we live in today, there are very few jobs that do not require at least rudimental cognitive skills. The way that organizations motivate and engage employees will therefore also have to evolve according to the needs of the current workforce.

Modern motivational theories have evolved from three main theories namely, Howthorne effect in the 1920’s, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in 1954 and Hertzberg’s hygiene factor theory. Many theories have recently started to acknowledge the important role that purpose plays in employee engagement and motivation. Too many organizations have vastly underestimated the role of purpose and its influence on motivation. This has led to plummeting levels of employee engagement as organizations struggle to come to terms with modern employee requirements. Organizations will soon find themselves forced to find new and innovative ways of creating purpose to motivate and engage employees. But what does creating purpose entail in this context? In order to answer this question purpose must be understood at a deeper level.

Purpose is defined as:

The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.

Purpose is a fascinating albeit abstract concept. Through the ages, it has had a profound impact on human behavior through man’s endeavors to find the answer to one of life’s most elusive questions  What is the meaning of life? Although the answer to this question, indeed if one exists, is most likely unique to each individual. Viktor Frankl attempted to answer this question in his book Man’s search for meaning (1946) where he compares the ability of fellow prisoners to endure great pain and suffering. He highlights the important role that meaning and purpose plays in determining one’s ability to endure great hardship with the following extract:

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Frankl stressed the important role that meaning plays in all facets of our lives. Human beings are constantly searching for meaning in everything that they do. If they are unable to find that meaning they will be left frustrated and unable to reach their true potential.

If purpose plays such a vital role in all facets of one’s life, then surely the effect that it has on employee engagement in the workplace should also receive the attention that it deserves? We spend a significant portion of our adult lives at work, yet it has become an all too familiar accordance for people to freely admit that they hate their jobs.

Meaningless and uninspiring work will have a negative effect on not only our work lives through lower levels of productivity, engagement and job satisfaction, but also adversely affect our personal lives. Psychology Today credits Frankl with coining the term ‘Sunday neurosis’. This refers to the dejection that many people feel at the end of the working week when at last they have the time to realize just how empty and meaningless their life has become.

Simon Sinek is a motivational speaker that delivered the third most watched TED talk in history. He is also the author bestselling book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (2009). In his book Sinek, much like Frankl, emphasizes the importance of purpose, although he applies the theory to employees as well as organizations. He calls it finding your “why” and defines it as follows:

“Your Why is the purpose, cause, or belief that inspires you”

Sinek’s Why is clear: He wants to help build a world where the vast majority of people wakes up inspired to go to work, feels trusted and valued during the day, then returns home feeling fulfilled.

Whether you call it your why, purpose, reason or cause, everyone owes it to themselves to stand still and take the time to figure out what this means for them. Without it they will not be able to find meaningful fulfillment at work. This does not mean that everyone should quit their jobs and start their own businesses. There are many employers that have realized that they have to harness the power of purpose by creating dynamic workplaces that motivate and engage employees through inspiration created by meaning. Those who do not will soon be left behind by their competitors.


  1. Frankl, Viktor (1946). Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
  3. Sinek, Simon (2009). Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action