A few years ago, I was introduced to groundbreaking research on work orientations and purpose-oriented workers by Michigan’s Amy Wrzesniewski and Swarthmore’s Barry Schwartz. They studied people working in universities and hospitals.
Their research team found that across all roles roughly one-third of people were wired to see work as primarily about self-fulfillment and serving others. But the other two-thirds saw work as a necessary evil, as a means to paying their bills or gaining esteem among family and peers.
These observations were mind-blowing for me. Remarkably, Amy, Barry and their colleagues found people who are intrinsically oriented to find work fulfilling are more likely to be higher performers and to experience greater wellbeing. Not surprisingly, these “purpose-oriented” workers were the most desirable employees.
It struck me that if we are going to increase the level of passion, creativity and satisfaction with our jobs, we need to understand and learn from these workers. What makes them tick?
We needed to measure who experiences the highest levels of purpose today. Why? Measuring employee engagement is nothing new. But survey after survey has missed the elephant in the room: to identify people who are intrinsically motivated to find purpose in their work.
Identifying Purpose-Oriented Workers using the Workforce Purpose Index
We designed a new survey to measure work orientation in the workforce. It would help identify purpose-oriented workers. It would measure their performance and job satisfaction compared to their non-purpose-oriented peers.
The result is the Workforce Purpose Index which was developed in collaboration with Dr. Anna Tavis at New York University. We surveyed a representative sample of the US workforce using a randomized national survey across sectors, jobs and demographics to understand and measure the level of fulfillment and meaning we experience in our jobs.
Our goal was to find the right predictive measure for someone to thrive at work. The survey design was inspired by our work with over a dozen companies and tens of thousands of professionals. The key metric we have all been seeking is simple: the measure of what percentage of the workforce or members of an organization are purpose-oriented.
[ctt template=”4″ link=”9QctR” via=”no” ]In 2015 only 28 percent of the US workforce overall was purpose-oriented.[/ctt]
In 2015 only 28 percent of the US workforce overall was purpose-oriented. They are sprinkled across every job and industry — from baristas to teachers, welders to philosophers, and CEOs. However, an overwhelming majority — 72 percent of US workers.
What Did We Learn About Purpose At Work?
We discovered that having purpose at work does not come from a fancy job title, and has nothing to do with working for a non-profit. To have a high level of fulfillment, people want to feel their work makes an impact — whether for their client, peers, company or society as a whole. They want to be challenged and try something new. They want to connect with others and have real relationships.
We found that purpose-oriented workers naturally seek out opportunities to create meaning in their jobs. They get to know their peers, and volunteer for challenging projects. Moreover, our study confirmed the Yale research team’s finding that purpose-oriented workers are overall better at their jobs. We also found they are significantly more likely to be have longer tenures at their organizations, rise to top leadership positions, and experience greater well-being and satisfaction with their jobs.
The biggest implications may be in the demographic data. While Millennials are often cited as the generation most concerned with pursuing meaningful careers, Baby Boomers edge them out when it comes to being purpose-oriented. Women are 10 percent more likely to be purpose-oriented than men. But, they are severely underrepresented in leadership roles across all industries. We also found that race and ethnicity have no bearing on whether someone is purpose-oriented.
Purpose-oriented individuals represent a more diverse and effective workforce than our current HR, management systems support. And, let’s face it – the findings give the lie to our implicit biases. Particularly when it comes to hiring and advancing women, baby boomers and minorities. They underscore the need for companies to hire the most diverse workforce using work orientation as the only guide.
Toward a Purpose-Oriented Workforce
Despite the low numbers of purpose-oriented workers, there is good news. Because we already see a positive shift. Across the two industries studied through the Yale team’s research — healthcare and education — we found a 10 percent increase in purpose-oriented workers since the 1997 study.
[ctt template=”4″ link=”5N0Xt” via=”no” ]An increase in purpose-oriented workers would likely boost the economy given higher performance.[/ctt]
An increase in purpose-oriented workers would likely boost the economy given higher performance. First off, it would improve our level of satisfaction with our jobs where we spend the majority of our lives. Second, it would boost our wellbeing and improve healthcare outcomes. Third, it would likely lead to more ethical companies.
We now have a metric we can use to change the nature of work. It is up to each organization to measure what matters and strive for continuous improvement. Consequently, it is up to parents and educators to orient kids entering the workforce to the amazing role work can play in our lives.
Together, we can make sure someday everyone will work with purpose.