Our traditional understanding of how to motivate people has been turned on its head in recent years. New discoveries in the fields of neuroscience, behavioral psychology, and evolutionary biology have allowed us to learn more about what’s really going on inside the human mind.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Usauthor Dan Pink, a leading expert in motivation science, argues there is a strong disconnect between what science knows and what business does. The current business operating system, he says, is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators or “if/then” rewards and punishments (e.g., if you do this, then you get that). Pink thinks we need an upgrade.  A new approach would consider three essential elements for motivation:

  1. Autonomy the desire to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery the urge to make progress and get better at something that matters
  3. Purposethe yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

The profit motive, though powerful, is quickly becoming an insufficient impetus to motivate individuals. According to Pink, “We are purpose maximizers, not only profit maximizers.” For more on Dan Pink’s book, watch this short video.

Make no mistake, money matters and extrinsic rewards can serve as powerful motivators, especially for short-term, highly focused, mechanical skill-based projects. But if your goal is to motivate employees to work collaboratively and creatively on long-term projects (read: sustainability) you’ll do well by digging deeper than people’s pocketbooks.

The Purpose Motive

A recent survey by Calling Brands found that purpose – a deeper role beyond satisfying business goals – was second only to pay when considering prospective employers. According to the report:

“Purpose not only directs and improves recruitment and retention but also the culture of innovation and invention. It can help re-set the fundamental relationship between employer and employee and drive up the sense of trust and shared goals between them which, we argue, is now essential to winning performance.”

A similar study by Net Impact found that 65% of workers said that “the potential to contribute to society” and “a job that will make the world a better place” is very important to them, with about 25% considering this to be essential.

Case study: KPMG

Convinced that today’s employees crave a sense of purpose in their work, the accounting firm KPMG recently launched an initiative to inspire higher levels of engagement. A key component of KPMG’s approach was cultivating a strong emotional connection between employees and the firm. They asked everyone – from interns to the CEO – to share stories about how their work was making a difference. Employees flooded them with stories and morale skyrocketed.

The results of their purpose campaign exceeded expectations. Within a year, the firm experienced higher employee satisfaction and loyalty, and greater productivity. Much to KPMG’s surprise, employee’s “pent up appetite to express the meaning of their work” heightened employee engagement, which helped drive better business performance. They are now the fastest growing of the Big Four public accounting firms.

What this means for business

Companies that are really flourishing – in terms of engagement, productivity, and profits – are animated by a sense of purpose, as evidenced by the case study above.

Employees crave meaningful work that makes them feel like more than cogs in a wheel. People don’t just want to be bricklayers. They want to be cathedral builders. They want to feel like they are making a contribution to something bigger than themselves. This isn’t just conjecture, it’s science.

So what is your company doing to promote purpose storytelling through sustainability? Has your organization connected to its “why”?

Communicate the big picture. SHOW people how their work connects with a transcendent purpose and why it matters. Inspire them to be active participants in co-creating a better world. Anything less is a huge missed opportunity – not only for your organization, but also for your purpose-driven people.