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The 2 best tools for building an engaged workforce

If you want to fuel the growth engine of your organization, help your team find purpose in their work. Identify the passions of your people and assign work roles accordingly.

6 min read


Impact on Organiz Culture

Over the last two decades, the relationships that individuals expect to have with their employers and their roles at work have begun to shift.

Now, not only do we seek to practice our skills in order to earn a paycheck, we strive to gain recognition for our contributions, and we yearn to experience a deep sense of fulfillment and meaning from our work. In short, we place a whole lot of emphasis on where and how we’re willing to spend that irretrievable 85,000 hours of our professional life; and smart leaders understand that fact.

After years of studying employees at all organizational levels and examining the drivers of engagement most likely to motivate a company’s best and brightest, what I’ve learned boils down to four simple and unalterable realities:

  1. Beyond a certain baseline level of pay and perks, giving your employees more money will not guarantee their engagement and loyalty, nor will it help them develop that essential connection between their own purpose and passions and the job you’re asking them to perform.
  2. Millennials and baby boomers have more in common than leaders might expect. Both groups are searching for more personal fulfillment from their jobs and are becoming increasingly unwilling to settle for less.
  3. As a leader, you have the capacity and the responsibility for shaping a work culture of engagement. Purpose and passion are the two best tools in your leadership arsenal for crafting that culture.
  4. Choosing to ignore these facts assures two outcomes for your organization:
    • the human-potential gap (the difference between what your workers can do and what they’re actually delivering) will only widen
    • productivity will ultimately suffer

During the early years of the industrial revolution, the formula for driving worker productivity appeared to be so much easier: give them more money and they’ll work longer and harder. That philosophy seemed to be supported by behavioral economists, who discovered the concept of “market-driven norms,” which influences the perception that a person has of their own worth in the marketplace.

Market-driven norms cause a person to think, “If the going rate is $12 per hour for the work that I do, then I expect that my company will pay me at least the same or more.”  Keeping workers engaged 70 years ago may have been as simple as being the top-paying organization for the skilled talent you sought to recruit. Many decades hence, that has all changed, and the concept of social-norm behavior helps us understand why.

Social-norm behavior comes into play when we ask someone to volunteer his or her skills or services. It’s akin to what happens when a friend asks for your help with moving a piece of furniture on a Saturday afternoon, or you see a woman with small children struggling to change a flat tire on the side of a busy highway. You’re likely to try to help — not because you expect to be paid, but because it seems like the right thing to do. Your remuneration for your effort is that good feeling of knowing you helped someone in need.

Leaders can apply this same philosophy to how they create cultures driven by purpose and passion — if they recognize that, in the world of work, social-norm thinking is the birthplace of discretionary effort. Consider the following thought streams that drive employee workplace behavior:

Credit: Alaina Love

As individuals focus on market-norm thinking, it prompts them to develop expertise through formal education as a means to obtaining a job. Once hired, the training provided by employers allows the individual to develop more skills for which they expect to be rewarded. And the expected reward is, you guessed it, more money.

It’s a game changer when leaders shift the focus to social-norm thinking by developing workplace cultures that encourage the application of both worker skills and passions. Social-norm thinking in this scenario prompts leaders to acknowledge that most individuals believe they are here to achieve a purpose. As they become more self-aware and self-actualized, they begin to connect with the passions that are a natural outgrowth of their purpose, and seek ways to bring those passions to their work.

When leaders provide an outlet for employee passions at work, the reward employees receive is a greater sense of meaning and fulfillment from the work. It’s the emotional reward, rather than the financial one, that drives discretionary effort. Fulfillment creates a positive feedback loop that encourages employees to go the extra mile for a customer, or think about projects outside of normal work hours. Organizations are not paying for that effort, but they are certainly reaping the benefits of it.

So if you want to fuel the growth engine of your organization, help your team find purpose in their work. Identify the passions of your people and assign work roles accordingly. Seek opportunities to offer special assignments that will leverage specific passions that employees yearn to demonstrate.

Most of all, strike a better balance between the actions that you take to drive market-norm and social-norm thinking in your workforce by carefully applying financial and emotional rewards to incent desired behaviors. Every employee brings to their work role a set of skills, and skills will always be essential for top performance; but don’t underestimate the power of purpose and passion as a competitive advantage. It’s a potent elixir for a high-performing culture.

Are you making the most of it with your team?


Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

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