The Business Benefits of Purpose

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman outlines the stark performance differences between firms that are purpose driven and those that are not.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

Is there a business case for having a sense of purpose in the work you do?

Consider a study by New York University, done with the consultancy Imperative. They found that purpose-oriented workers report greater job fulfillment, do better on their performance evaluations, and are much more likely to promote their employers to others. Purpose-oriented workers saw their work as being personally fulfilling and helping other people, while non purpose-oriented workers saw their job as merely a source of income or status.

This doesn’t mean purpose-oriented workers don’t care about power or money. As Laurence Fink, CEO of the world’s largest asset manager BlackRock wrote in his annual letter to CEO’s: "Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose—in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked."

Look at Microsoft. When Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, purpose took center stage, marking the beginning of a renaissance. Believing that “a sense of purpose in mission and culture” are the two “enduring pillars” of any organization, Nadella reinvigorated the role of purpose in order to remind Microsoft’s employees and stakeholders that the company was still relevant in an industry dominated by Google and Apple.

“One of the things that happens when you're super successful is you sometimes lose touch with what made you successful in the first place,” Nadella told CNET news, “I wanted to go back to the very genesis of this company. What is that sense of purpose and drive that made us successful?”

Nadella brought a growth mindset to Microsoft, infusing the culture with the mission, “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” Nadella created One Week -- an annual gathering that includes a science fair, a nonprofit fair, Q&A’s with Microsoft's leadership, and one of the industry’s largest private hackathons. The activities are designed to encourage employees to focus on passion projects that advance the mission.

One purpose-driven project to come out of these hackathon’s: Windows EyeControl, a technology allowing anyone with ALS to operate an onscreen mouse, keyboard, and text-to-speech experience using only their eyes. Talk about empowering every person to achieve more.

Meanwhile, under Nadella, top executives have been asked to adopt an empathic approach to collaboration, numerous employees  have “boomeranged” to Microsoft for a second job stint, the company has moved into cloud-computing and subscription services, allies have been formed with the open-source development community, partnerships have been made with companies previously labeled competitors, and stock prices have risen exponentially. 

Five years later and Microsoft has become the third company to reach a net worth of a trillion dollars, after Apple and Amazon. 

While mission statements and branding promises provide an entry point for connecting to purpose, if they ring hollow to employees, they don’t boost retention, increase performance, or transform employees into brand ambassadors.

As Nadella shows, to reap the full and lasting benefits of a purpose-driven culture, leaders do well to weave purpose into the very fabric of the work. In data from 39 different industries, 73% of employees who say they work at a “purpose-driven” company are engaged, compared to just 23% of those who don’t, according to a study from PWC. Truly purpose-driven companies are where even those in the least obvious “helping” roles feel clear on their mission and fulfilled by what they do.

On the other hand, jobs that on their face offer a sense of mission, like the helping professions, are not necessarily purposeful. There are plenty of doctors, nurses and social workers who would tell you they feel disconnected and unfulfilled.

In short: purpose is a pillar, not a position. And, yes, there is a business case.

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.