The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

The Purpose of Purpose

Why purpose produces high performance

Italy in the spring. Yeah, I can do that.

I’m in Milan as I write this, flown in to speak at the Positive Business Forum. But as beautiful as the surroundings are, a small part of me can’t help but wonder: Are the Italians so desperate that they want to put “positive” and “business” together in some ploy to stimulate their anemic economy?

Actually, it doesn’t take long before this cynical thought dissipates.

After all, I’ll be speaking about new studies showing that doing something with purpose causes the brain’s reward circuits to activate. As a result, the purpose of what we do is directly related to how engaged we are at work.

My own research has shown that purpose connects “positive” to “business.” When we work together for a common goal, time flies and reaching the objective becomes joyful. This effect can be achieved by working alone, but it is magnified when we work in teams, attaining the synchrony of accomplishment.

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There are two ways to put these concepts to work in your organization. The first is to lay out concrete objectives that employees can hit, but with a significant effort—an approach I’ve discussed before. After the goal is reached, team members need to celebrate their achievement and take a short break to recharge their effort stores before they work on the next challenge.

The second way to use purpose as a motivator is to identify and broadcast your organization’s “higher purpose.” Specifically, how does your organization improve customers’ lives? If you don’t know how this, then you don’t know why you’re in business.

Doug Rauch, the now-retired CEO who turned Trader Joe’s into a national chain, told me that he realized during the company’s expansion that Trader Joe’s higher purpose was to give customers a delightful experience. It does this by selling customers healthy and unique foods, but Rauch realized that it was delight that makes the real difference. And all Trader Joe’s employees know this.

When I visit companies, I find that employees at very few of them actually know their organization’s higher purpose. That is most unfortunate, as Peter Drucker reminded us. “The number of people who are really motivated by money is very small,” Drucker once remarked. “Most people need to feel that they are here for a purpose, and unless an organization can connect to this need to leave something behind that makes this a better world, or at least a different one, it won’t be successful over time.”

Follow Drucker’s lead and change work from being transactional to transformative. Productivity will go up, and so will joy at work. I’d call that positive business.

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This article first appeared in The Drucker Exchange on April 5, 2013.

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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