Organization & Leadership Consulting

Purpose and Employee Engagement — What it Means

Employee Engagement. Now there’s a technical term that covers many important factors of organizational health and productivity. It’s been measured and found wanting in most developed countries around the world. Let’s briefly take a superficial look at a few ways to think about it. If you want to go deeper, check out the resource ideas below.

Power, Pleasure, or Purpose. Which is the strongest motivator?

Each of the above is considered, within different psychological schools of thought, as a primary motivator of human behavior. Victor Frankl, a survivor of the WWII concentration camps, determined that a person’s will to meaning is a more powerful motivator than the other two. Therefore, power and pleasure end up being mere shadows of the deeper, intrinsic motivation of finding meaning in life (and work takes up a lot of life’s time).

Purpose vs. Meaning

A related school of thought is that people, and therefore organizations, are more motivated by a deep sense of meaning than purpose itself. Here’s reasoning — we are each wired with a strong desire to make a positive contribution to the world around us, to make a difference. This reveals that, even though at some level we tend to make it “all about me” (Hamilton’s “I am not throwin’ away my shot!”), what we really want is to be a part of something more important and more lasting than ourselves. A more accurate way to state this motivation is, “We are fulfilled when we find how to become a means to a higher purpose.” This validates us as individuals in a way that requires genuine humility, not false modesty or a cloak of arrogance.

The findings of many studies on employee engagement reveal that money is not the primary motivator for most people to do their best work. The highest ranking factors all have to do with a sense of meaning. Sometimes it is exactly that. Sometimes it is a belief that their boss knows them, sees them, and truly has their best interests in mind. Sometimes it is knowing how what they do for the organization fits into the bigger, more purposeful picture. 

Now, that is not an excuse to pay an unfair wage or withhold any form of compensation. It is simply to put those essential elements into perspective. Our employees need more than money to be consistently motivated to put forth their best effort. They want to believe something or someone in the future will be better because of their unique contribution.

This all relates to values, mission, and vision. Those broad brush strokes of organizational vitality need to be clear and aligned. But they are not people. Our people need to know what brings them meaning and how that personal, individualized motivation can be authentically connected to their organization’s values, mission, and vision. May your future efforts at employee engagement ring true!

Resource Ideas on this topic:

  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
  • The One Thing You Need to Know by Marcus Buckingham
  • A conversation with a consultant at TurningWest (

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