Why Leaders Need to Invest in Purpose

Workers want to feel engaged, not just well paid, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman. 

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

In 2022, the business world was overrun with conversations about “quiet quitting,” the phenomenon in which employees would give no more than minimal effort in order to keep their jobs. A fancy term for employee disengagement, quiet quitting prompted a range of responses, from accusations that millennials have no work ethic, to legitimate concerns about people’s well-being and ability to focus.

No matter the name, employee disengagement always leads to the same set of questions:

Why do employees leave their jobs?

What causes declines in productivity?

What do companies need to do if they want to keep turnover low and get the highest level of creativity and commitment out of their people?

No matter how badly we might want to live in a world driven by more than money, the human need for safety is a priority and equates, in many parts of the world, with financial security. This is why pay continues to be one of the top reasons people leave their jobs—not because they don’t care about other things, but because an outdated minimum wage has left many of them struggling to survive. The US minimum wage stopped keeping pace with both inflation and increases in productivity more than fifty years ago. Had it not done so, it would currently sit at more than $21 an hour, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Businesses can’t let this need for a better living distract them from seeing the rest of the data. Just because money matters doesn’t mean it’s the first factor to warrant change. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, opportunities for growth and development (though they rank second in importance to a stable living) are important to just as many people. What’s more, when people have these meaningful opportunities, they may even be willing to sacrifice some growth in their earnings.

This became quite clear in a recent Gallup poll showing that while it takes a pay raise of more than 20% to lure most employees away from a job where they feel engaged, it requires almost no increase to poach them if they aren’t. This idea is further reinforced by data from LinkedIn, which found that 94% of employees would stay at a job longer if given more opportunities to learn.

The brain’s seeking system—–a series of neural pathways that encourage us to explore, learn, and find meaning—is one reason growth and development are so important. From an evolutionary standpoint, this system is what motivated us to find food, shelter, and protection long before modern industry made these things so easily available.

You could say that curiosity has been hardwired into our survival: when we follow the seeking system, the brain releases dopamine, the “pleasure” chemical linked to motivation and reward. This is why learning activates positive thinking and feelings of joy, and how it motivates us to direct our efforts towards a goal.

When talking about purpose, people often talk about “focusing on more than the bottom line.” First and foremost, this means looking at business through the lens of why it matters, using purpose—not profit—as the preliminary benchmark for making decisions.

When companies do this, money often follows. According to a study from the Harvard Business Review, companies with a strong purpose outperform the market by 5% to 7% per year. They grow faster, are more profitable, have more committed employees, and appeal more to consumers.

The mindset shift is similar when it comes to interrupting disengagement: Can companies see employees not as expenses to be accounted for, but as valuable assets worth investing in?

If you asked a conductor about their orchestra, they could tell you, in detail, the strengths of each player. They would know what each member was seeking to improve, and how their individual skills contribute to the overall quality of the ensemble.

This shift from profit to purpose, or from people as assets to people as meaningful investments, is the future of work. Just as much as they require a stable livelihood and fair compensation for their work, people need to feel that they are evolving and reaching for something worthwhile. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.