Over at the Inside Influence Report, Noah Goldstein writes about a recent study that examined whether infusing a task with purpose can motivate high performance.

The study, conducted by Wharton’s Adam Grant, involved the call center at a university fundraising organization. Grant obtained permission to talk to the folks working at the call center — and then randomly assigned employees to one of three groups.

As Goldstein explains:

Some of these employees read stories from other employees describing what they perceived were the personal benefits of the job, including financial benefits and the development of skills and knowledge (Personal Benefit condition). However, another set of employees read stories from the beneficiaries of the fundraising organization, who described how the scholarships they obtained from the organization had a positive impact on their lives (Task Significance condition). Finally, there was a third group of employees that did not read any stories (Control condition). In addition, the employees were told not to talk about or share what they had read with any other callers. The researcher was able to obtain the number of pledges earned as well as the amount of donation money obtained by the callers both one week prior to the study and one month afterward.

What happened?

The results were “amazing,” says Goldstein. Employees in the Personal Benefit and Control groups secured the same number of pledges and raised the same amount of money as they had before the intervention.

But people in the Task Significance Group, the ones who read about what their work accomplished and how it affected the world, “earned more than twice the number of weekly pledges (from an average of 9 to an average of 23) and more than twice the amount of weekly donation money (from an average of $1,288 to an average of $3,130).”

Further confirmation perhaps of the power of the purpose motive.

29 Responses to “Is purpose really an effective motivator?”

  1. Barry Davis says:

    Purpose is ABSOLUTELY a key motivator. The lack of it is what causes many individuals to answer “Nothing!” when asked, “What did you get done at work today?”.

    This response is not a statement on quantity of work done but on the QUALITY as interpreted by the individual.

  2. Jesse Hachey says:

    Hey Dan,

    Excellent post. Further confirmation and data to back up your talk in 2009 on the science behind motivation. Keep finding little nuggets of gold like this! Your work is amazing.

  3. Wendy Krautkramer says:

    The Power of Purpose is actually what my first MBA course covered. I definitely agree that finding one’s purpose and better yet, having a common purpose / vision amongst a group can be an incredibly powerful motivator. As I look back at my shorter professional career, I realize the jobs I most enjoyed all had a higher purpose which I was made aware of either formally or informally. I realize now, that having a purpose when doing anything, produces better and more enjoyable results. Making this known is a key ingredient and what makes leaders effective.

    Thank you for sharing this study.

  4. Pete says:

    This study proves that if you provide sales training to your sales people, they will sell more product. In this case, donations.

  5. Eric McNulty says:

    While this isn’t surprising, it would be interesting to look at this from a demographic perspective. Does generation make a difference?

  6. Alex says:

    This is a fantastic study! So valuable to businesses and individuals. Different motivators is something that really intrigues me.

  7. Ariel Becker says:

    The self-determination theory of motivation strongly supports such a finding. Perhaps, a critical detail to include is that providing meaning and reason for a task is most beneficial when tailored to the individual conducting the task. It would be interesting to know what part of the stories appealed to the individual members of the task significance group.

  8. Jenny says:

    Thanks for sharing this article. The statistics confirm what most of us felt in our gut. Connecting to something greater than ourselves and serving the world in a positive way is a true motivator.

    I am a little surprised that there was no difference between the Personal Benefit group and the Control. I guess it goes to show that when employees say “higher pay will make me happier,” and companies give it to them, nothing really changes. It’s the connection to what the company is doing that really matters.

  9. Carol says:

    I will be sharing this with my Sierra Club chapter meeting tonight. I am volunteering as a social media person right now, and just getting started with the task of understanding how and what to convey to the world about our needs and efforts. Sharing the positive end results sounds like a crucial component. Thanks or this info.

  10. Ed Brenegar says:

    Whew! Am I relieved! I thought I was going to have to start living a purposeless life. Not sure I could conjure up much motivation for that.

  11. Chris Sweeney says:

    Dan, I believe this group most likely did not sound scripted and came across owning their part. As a nurse talking to patients on the telephone, I have learned these same skills to help patients believe they can take care of themselves. If I read from a book, my patients wouldn’t buy it. Thanks for the post.

  12. Anna Fleming says:

    And while you’re creating purpose & meaning, you’re also a
    having a substantive conversation. See also
    “Talk Deeply, Be Happy?” (NYT,3/17/10,RABIN).

  13. Kate Fitzpatrick says:

    From my “Page a Day” calendar today:

    Amory Blaine, the main charaacter in This Side of Paradise: “The idea that to make a man work you’ve got to hold gold in front of his eyes is a growth, not an axiom. We’ve done that for so long that we’ve forgotten there’s any other way.”

  14. Monick Halm says:

    This is such a great post! I want to repost this on my blog!

  15. Mariko says:

    Wow. These findings should be shared with as many people as possible.

    Because although there is such compelling evidence for the importance of imbuing employees with a sense of purpose, so many business leaders are still perceiving culture and organizational purpose as secondary to business activities.

  16. I wanted to weigh in with responses to a few of the questions that have been raised:

    1. Do these effects extend to other occupations?
    Yes—and they’re even stronger when employees come face-to-face with the clients, customers, or patients who benefit from their work. In one study, I found that the average employee achieved over 500% increases in weekly revenue after meeting a recipient in person. Other studies shown similar effects with lifeguards meeting swimmers who have been saved by other lifeguards’ efforts, radiologists seeing pictures of the patients whose x-rays they evaluate, and bankers receiving feedback from customers about how their loans change lives.

    2. When are the stories most effective?
    Here’s what we know so far:
    -When past recipients convey gratitude, enabling employees to feel valued and appreciated
    -When current recipients elicit empathy, highlighting their areas of need
    -When future recipients inspire, illuminating a path to having greater impact

    3. How do behaviors change when employees see the purpose of their work?
    It turns out that connecting employees to the purpose of their work motivates employees to work harder and smarter. In terms of working harder, employees invest more time and energy in their work, producing higher quantity. In terms of working smarter, employees come up with more effective and creative strategies for carrying out their work, producing higher quality.

    4. How do differences between employees matter?
    I’ve discovered that purpose matters more for employees who are less conscientious (think Homer Simpson) than those who are more conscientious (think Ned Flanders). The highly conscientious employees already see their work as important, and tend to be internally driven to perform well. The less conscientious employees, on the other hand, are fired up by realizing that their work has a meaningful impact on others. Also, we haven’t found any generational differences yet, but Jean Twenge and her colleagues have a study in press showing that Millennials place slightly higher importance on extrinsic and leisure rewards—and slightly less importance on altruistic, social, and intrinsic rewards—than Boomers and Gen Xers. However, Millennials still rank intrinsic and altruistic rewards quite highly.

  17. Purpose is what motivates me, day in and day out. I’ve got 6 kids all clamoring for my attention, plus a bazillion activities and things that need coordinating.

    But person by person, I’m making a difference. I’m empowering people to be more self reliant in their health and mentoring their kids. It keeps me focused. It keeps me writing.

    I know that purpose has power.

  18. another great read from you, Dan. thank you for asking the question and researching a response. from what i read, it’s about the power of purpose AND the power of story. story is a powerful motivator. personalizing that story and bringing it home, with emotional response appears the winner.

  19. These findings are totally in sync with the work we do on individual purpose and passion. In our book, “The Purpose Linked Organization” (McGraw Hill, 2009) we describe the impact of connecting to individual and organizational purpose on business results. What’s more, we see purpose manifest as outwardly visible and measurable passions. We describe 10 “archetypes of passion” that people demonstrate in work and life. When employees are given an outlet for their passions at work, productivity soars, as was demonstrated in the Wharton study.

  20. Tammy Redmon says:

    As always, another quick, post that is power packed with insight. Thank you for sharing. Purpose is an element that when combined with vision and core values is I believe, unbeatable. As a former (recovering) Government Cubicle Nation junkie, I can tell you that the deciding factor for leaving a highly successful position was based around my purpose and values. They were not in alignment with that of the organization and therefore caused great frustration…on both sides. And, the power in that discovery was fodder for coaching and speaking to elected officials on the power of your team’s individual and collective purpose.

  21. asimov says:

    I find the story interesting, but it left some questions unanswered. The caller for the study had an average age of ~20 years old. I’m guessing most if not all are UPenn undergraduate students, whose intrinsic motivation to work at the call center maybe different than the general population.

    1) I wonder if the result is transferable to the general population, whose motivation may differ than those of UPenn UG students?

    2) I wonder what the long term effects of the “motivational story” will have on the callers?

    3) Also, were the callers’ fund solicitation methods affected by the stories? For example, did the “task significance” group parrot the stories they’ve heard to the donors. So instead of affecting the callers, the stories served to motivate the donors.

  22. Hi Daniel Pink i never heard about you until now. I read your book A Whole new mind for senior english class and i thought it was interesting.It had some great ideas about the human mind and about life in general. Your book was different from other books i have read in high school, it seemed to have fit me more some parts i didnt find interesting and true but overall you have great ideas and details. The best part of the book in my opinion was meaning. I believe that we do find happiness in life when we find our meaning for it.

  23. Javi says:

    What is my purpose in life? This question probably runs through many minds, male or female, of what our purpose as human beings is in this world. Many don’t know why they are here and many just don’t know how to live their life. In a whole new mind, it made me think of my future and how I will accomplish my goals and stay determined and to stick with the path of success. The Meaning chapter illustrated many pictures in my head and the one I really liked was when I could imagine myself standing in front of a forked road. There were two paths that i could chose from, either the left which lead to pain and suffer, and there was a right that lead to success and a better future. Your book was a motivator not only for me, but for the rest of my senior english class here in Lindenwold High. I appreciate your book and the meaning you bought into it and I thank you for making it an interesting book to read. Thank you!

  24. Jessenia Rosario says:

    Hello, my name is Jessenia Rosario, currently enrolled in Lindenwold High School as a senior. In my English class, we were required to read your novel A Whole New Mind and found it very interesting because it has gave us the perspective and knowledge of what it takes to succeed in the future with our talents, intelligent minds, ability to understand what makes us who we are, and what matters in our lives. My favorite section/chapter in A Whole New Mind was empathy. I am considered as a young woman who uses empathy to gain an understanding of how I can help others with issues and also, I use empathy to find out within myself what I need or want to succeed in my life. In addition, in English class we watched a video on youtube about the ripple effect in India and Angels in the Dust. It went along with your chapter about empathy. Another chapter in your book that caught my attention and related more to my life was meaning because as a high school senior, I must find my meaning or purpose in life and I must balance my personal life and my career. Although it is difficult in my life to have a positive attitude about my future because of the economy and the budget in a poor household, your novel has helped me realize that I must keep my head up high and follow my heart along with my mind. In addition, your novel has made me think that I can help others and myself understand who we are.

    With great appreciation and gratitude,
    Jessenia Rosario

  25. Tom Fass says:

    Daniel, you’ve brought inspiration, motivation,and determenation to my life, but most importantly you’ve brought light to my eyes. After reading A Whole New Mind, I’ve realized what purpose is and how it’s essential in life. Also, I’ve learned with purpose comes power and with power comes happiness.

  26. miles jay says:

    Dan i enjoy reading A Whole Mind this year, my senoir year of high school. My english teacher, Ms.Ryan, use your book as the backbone of her class this year. The Symphony chapter was the best part to me. Because we have to use the right side of the brain to sovle problems in the world. For this chapter we watch Ripple Effect and Angle in the Dust. I learned a lot from A Whole Mind and I can’t wait to read your next book.

  27. Markeith Johnson says:

    I am currently a 12th grade student attending Lindenwold High School and i would like to share some of my thoughts with you about a book i recently read of yours called A Whole New Mind. I would have to say that out of all the books i have read in 4 years this one was by far the worse. It is too wordy and boring. I plan to be a writer in the future therefore I know how hard it is for an author to capture the attention of a younger audience. With this being said, i think you should try to be more entertaining than wordy because you did have a lot of information that was extremely well written and quoted.

  28. Zirk Botha says:

    Hi Dan, I’ve recently stumbled on your work and books. Your reseach on motivation is great. Keep up the good work.

  29. Mary Karver says:

    It was extremely interesting for me to read that blog. Thanx for it. I like such topics and anything connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more soon.

    Mary Karver
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