The Power of Purpose: How Organizations are Making Work More Meaningful

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The Power of Purpose: How Organizations are Making Work More Meaningful

Article and Author Information

Alison Alexander (MSLOC, December 2015) wrote this research article on the power of purpose in business as the culmination of her Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change at Northwestern University. The article has been accepted by the Academy of Management (AOM) for publication and presentation at their 2016 annual meeting. This research reflects Alison's professional focus on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) management, a career that brings together her passion for social impact, employee engagement, and the corporate environment. In pursuit of her professional dreams, the MSLOC program offered her the opportunity to develop as a critical thinker, a passionate people motivator, and a change manager. The MSLOC community has also fostered her involvement in the Association for Change Management Professionals (ACMP). Alison was the Annual Conference Co-chair in 2015 and received the Volunteer of the Year Award. In 2016, she has been elected to the Board of Directors as Events Director. Alison will continue to pursue her purpose by integrating corporate social responsibility and change management together in her life and career. 


Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation. ~ Aristotle

Today, the lines between social issues and business are blurred. There is mounting pressure for companies to go beyond a basic standard of “doing well by doing good” to operating with an explicit purpose: to make positive contributions to society. At the same time, individuals are increasingly looking for meaning in their lives and, given the amount of time spent at work, it makes sense to look to the workplace as a source of meaning. Purpose in business is a growing trend that might actually shift our way of thinking about employee engagement.

A dual-method was used to explore the definition of purpose in business, its characteristics or attributes, and the possible correlation between meaningfulness at work and corporate social responsibility. Variables associated with purpose were measured through quantitative research using a sample of corporate employees (N = 233). A qualitative, exploratory study of perceived definitions, attributes, and organizational structures related to purpose was captured through interviews (N = 12).

The results of this study indicate organizations that are perceived as purpose-driven and particularly socially responsible impact employees’ sense of meaningfulness at work.

Additionally, five themes arose in the exploration of the definition of purpose, one predominant theme being meaningful work and value creation, signifying that purpose-driven organizations that offer employees opportunities to make a difference have employees who are more engaged, affectively committed, and intrinsically motivated. Theoretical and practical implications related to purpose and meaning at work are discussed.


Why Should We Care About Purpose and Meaningful Work?

This year alone, overwhelming attention to this topic has escalated to such a degree that it can no longer be ignored. Purpose in business is clearly a trend that is gaining traction in all types of organizations. There is recent, significant growth in more conscious consumerism, socially responsible investing, and Triple Bottom Line businesses. There is also a general feeling present that asks businesses to strive for more (Honeyman, 2014), and leadership—those looking for ways to get an edge up—would do well to pay attention.

Studies show that in the past few decades people have changed how and where they spend their money (Net Impact, 2012; Deloitte, 2015). From a consumer perspective, businesses that have a declared, socially responsible mission are getting a bigger piece of the pie than those that do not. There is a competitive advantage to be gained by companies who make social purpose an end-goal, by those who play a larger role in addressing social concerns (Mackey & Sisodia, 2013). Research shows that putting an emphasis on purpose rather than profits generates business confidence, drives investment, and creates long-term success (Deloitte, 2014). It is time finally to say, “Rest in peace, Adam Smith!”

Spence & Rushing (2009) declare, “the secret ingredient of extraordinary companies is purpose” (p.10). This is a “squishy” topic in business—anything with “heart and soul” is (Sisodia, Wolfe & Sheth, 2007), but, if these “softer” qualities can be identified, they may become the differentiators of a purpose-driven organization, as well as have fundamental implications on organizational success. Defining purpose and its attributes may be key. Significant research has already been conducted around culture, leadership, employee engagement, value alignment, commitment, meaningfulness, and spirituality in an attempt to deepen and expand our understanding of the relationship between business and people. Evidence shows that business is good for companies where corporate social responsibility is present, employee engagement is high, and personal values are connected to work, i.e. expressing one’s whole self through one’s work (Kahn 1990; Glavas & Piderit, 2009). By establishing a connection between employee and organizational values a collective, socialized dynamic evolves, making individuals part of something bigger than themselves through shared meaning and affective commitment or emotional attachment (Weick 1995; Meyer & Allen, 1990).

The notion that individuals have an inherent need for meaningful work is supported by the motivation theorists and humanistic psychologists (Alderfer, 1972; Herzberg, Mausner, & Snyderman, 1959; Maslow, 1943; McClelland, 1965; McGregor, 1960; Rogers, 1961). The most influential studies on purpose, to date, are those that define and measure meaningfulness and spirituality. Both words are used interchangeably with “purpose” in the literature (Steger, Dik & Duffy, 2012; Glavas, 2012; Chalofsky, 2003; Rego & e Cunha, 2008). The constructs and models of meaningfulness and spirituality have the potential to support the building of a definition of a purpose-driven organization.

Culture plays an important role. It is the vehicle into which purpose is embedded, the context for employee engagement, the footing for establishing meaningfulness for employees. For companies trying to develop a purpose-driven organization, culture is identified as the “strongest competitive difference” (Sisodia et al., 2007). Schein (2010) notes that by understanding our culture we can understand ourselves and the forces acting upon us that define us, ranging from “very tangible overt manifestations that you can see and feel to the deeply imbedded and unconscious” (p. 23). By exploring and characterizing the various attributes of purpose, we can begin to define it and understand its impact within business.

What does all this point to for businesses of the future? As more and more people demand that businesses serve a higher purpose, organizations will arguably have to step up. People are looking for meaning in life and companies are beginning to understand the power in that and, also, that they can no longer separate profit from purpose (Lin, 2010; Deloitte, 2014). What is purpose in business? What are the various attributes of purpose and how do they play a role in fulfilling a sense of meaning for employees? And does organizational purpose and individual meaning have something to do with corporate social responsibility?

The goal of this research is to explore and understand how purpose in business is defined, what the attributes of a purpose-driven organization might be, and whether there is a correlation between a company’s corporate social responsibility initiative and an employee’s sense of meaning at work.

Hypothesis 1: Perceived presence of Corporate Social Responsibility has a positive impact on an employee’s sense of meaning at work.

Uncovering cultural characteristics or attributes of a purpose-driven organization that affect an employee’s sense of meaning at work may provide stepping stones for future research.

Hypothesis 2: An employee’s sense of meaning at work is positively associated with increased engagement, commitment, and alignment with organizational values.

Methods and Procedures

Over a twelve-week period, data was collected via a dual-method study: a quantitative survey and qualitative semi-structured interviews.

Survey Respondents and Interview Participants

 Survey respondents were solicited using social and professional networks with the only qualifiers being age (over 18 years) and full-time employment within an organization. The sample size (N = 233) consisted of a diverse demographic of individuals, representing 184 different companies of various sizes and industries and from both public and private sectors. The sample is representative of a variety of age groups: 28% Baby Boomers, 26% GenX, and 46% Millenials/Gen Y. The majority of the sample (48%) has less than four years of work experience, while the remainder was split with 28% having 4-9 years of experience and 28% with 10+ years of experience (Figure 1).

figure 1At the end of the survey, respondents were also asked to volunteer for a follow-up interview. Interviewees were selected from a list of those who volunteered and also had the highest scores of the variables measured. High scores were determined by finding the mean score (between 1-6) for each of the 12 variables (Table 1). Interviewees scored a four or higher on all variables. Of the total survey respondents, 25 individuals qualified; 12 were selected randomly and asked to participate. All accepted.

The interviewee sample size (N = 12) consisted of diverse individuals representing 12 different companies. The sample varied across demographic categories consistent with the overall sample: seven Baby Boomers and five Millenials/Gen Y; six with less than four years of experience, two with 4-9 years of experience, and four with 10+ years of experience.


Drawing upon multiple variables projected or perceived as being most strongly associated with the term “purpose” in previous research (Steger et al., 2012; Ashmos & Duchon, 2000; Allen & Meyer, 1990) 12 variables were selected for the current study (Table 1).

table 1

Survey questions used a six-point Likert scale (removing the neutral option to force a response) to identify agreement level for a set of questions organized into three categories: 1) the degree to which the respondent found meaning in life, 2) the degree to which the respondent found meaning in work, and 3) the degree to which the respondent thought his or her company was socially responsible (Appendix A). The survey also included four demographic questions (tenure, role level, generation, geographic region).

Results and Findings

Data was analyzed using SPSS predictive analytics software. An alpha reliability test was performed on each variable (Table 1). Results revealed that multiple variables exhibit significant positive relationships. The most significant relationships related to the topic are explored below. A descriptive analysis was conducted to determine variable means, standard deviations, and correlations (Table 2). Overall, survey responses showed moderate mean levels for all variables (M = 4.1 to 4.8), with many showing noteworthy positive correlations. The variables that displayed the strongest correlations were: meaning at work and employee engagement (r = 0.83, p = .000), followed by corporate social responsibility and organizational values (r = 0.80, p = .000).

table 2

Corporate Social Responsibility as Driver for Purpose and Meaningful Work

Hypothesis 1 states that a sense of meaning at work is higher when an employee perceives their company to be socially responsible. To test Hypothesis 1 relationships between corporate social responsibility and multiple variables were explored. Regression analyses show that an employee’s perceived presence of corporate social responsibility is a significant predictor of many positive attributes or variables associated with purpose in business. Five independent variables show significant positive correlations, supporting Hypothesis 1 as shown in Table 3.

The scatter plots in Figure 2 display the strength of the association among the purpose and meaningful work variables and corporate social responsibility.

figure 2

Linking corporate social responsibility to higher levels of an employee’s sense of meaning at work is contingent upon an individual’s self-awareness. Results show significant (p = .000) frequencies: 89% of respondents identified that they have a good sense of what makes their life meaningful; 77% see a connection between their work and the larger social good of their community.

An accepted standard indicator of an employee’s satisfaction with their company is found in whether they would endorse the organization. Results show significant (p = .000) frequencies: 81% of respondents would recommend their company because of a positive association with meaningful work; 83% would recommend their company because they perceive their company demonstrates strong corporate social responsibility as shown in Figure 3.

figure 3

Meaning in Life

Measuring meaning at work requires an understanding of the respondent’s feeling of meaning in their life overall. To identify the extent to which the respondents feel life has meaning and/or make an effort to find meaning or deepen their understanding of meaning in life, results were calculated by frequency (Figure 4).

figure 4

To further explore the connection between meaning in life and meaning at work, a correlation test was used to determine the relationship of work to sense of meaning. A significant (p = .000) positive relationship (r = 0.45) is evident between the presence of meaning in life and making meaning through work.

Employee Engagement and Commitment

To identify predictors of meaningful work, commitment to membership with the organization and engagement with the actual work one does was explored. Hypothesis 2 states that when an employee experiences meaning at work, engagement, commitment, and alignment to the organization’s values are increased. This study shows that organizations need to enhance employee engagement and value alignment in order to achieve meaningful work. Regression and correlation tests were used to gauge how the affective commitment and meaningful work variables are related. Their relationship shows a significant (p = .000) association (F = 99.20, t = 9.96, r = 0.62). This supports Hypothesis 2, suggesting that people have increases engagement, affective commitment, and alignment to organizational values when they experience a sense of meaningfulness at work (Table 2).

Generation Awareness

An ANOVA test was used to determine significant relationships between measured variables and categorical demographic information to better understand the extent to which meaningful work is present for individuals from different generations, tenures, and role levels (Appendix B). There were no significant differences across tenure or role level. It should be noted that the data show significant (p = .000 to .005) correlations between older generations and the following variables: engagement, meaning at work, presence of meaning in life, affective commitment, positive meaning, and greater-good motivation. Baby Boomers had the highest means and Gen X, middle means (Table 2). While Millennials/Gen Y are often thought of as the generation that emphasizes a need for meaning (perhaps out of a natural age related idealism), all generations currently in the workforce want meaning and therefore might look for it in some type of greater good impact.

Purpose in Business: An Evolving Definition…

“If we want to know what a business is, we have to start with purpose.” ~ Peter Drucker, Practice of Management

Two open-ended questions were asked in the survey (Appendix A) regarding the respondents’ definition of purpose in business and their interpretation of their own company’s purpose. The exploratory interview protocol (Appendix C) consisted of four open-ended questions designed to encourage participants 1) to discuss their definition of purpose, 2) to identify specifically how their organization fulfills meaningfulness for them, 3) to describe the connection they see between the work they do and the purpose of their organization, and 4) to gather examples of socially responsible attributes that are present in their organizations that might correlate with organizational purpose and/or individual meaning.

The data collected from the survey were coded for themes that might point to a definition of purpose. Multiple readings were performed using a deductive analysis to allow for themes to be identified. Themes were subsequently labeled and categorized. Additionally, more than one code was often assigned to a datum if it met the criteria for multiple codes. Using categorical frequency coding of the data, five key themes were identified (Table 4). From these it is evident that definitions are infused with personal perspective and meaning is assigned individually.

The range of definitions describe everything from the actions which a company performs and the foundational statements which a company stands for to the way an organization might influence employees or external constituents. Themes are listed by frequency of occurrence.

table 4

The predominant theme revealed in the data was “to create value or do meaningful work.” One interviewee explains, “Organizations that feel that they have purpose are generally working toward something they feel is going to be impactful in their field or in society.” It is suggested, then, that organizations that have value alignment or provide opportunities to create value generate a greater sense of meaning for their employees. For example interviewees describe it as “…bringing something meaningful to the table,” or “…an ethical and moral way of doing business,” and “…contributing to something greater than shareholder gains.” Further, employees of organizations where these attributes are present report being more engaged, affectively committed, and intrinsically motivated (as found in the survey results). A comment from an interviewee supports this premise: “[Purpose is] the reason and driving force behind what a company intends to do in the world and for the lives of its employees and customers.”

Characteristics or Attributes of a Purpose-Driven Company

“Core purpose is the organization’s fundamental reason for being. An effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the company’s work—it taps their idealistic motivations—and gets at the deeper reasons for an organization’s existence beyond just making money.” ~ Roy Spence & Haley Rushing, It's Not What you Sell, It's What you Stand For: Why Every Extraordinary Business Is Driven by Purpose

Purpose has many names. It is important to note that no cohesive or agreed upon definition of purpose in business yet exists, and, further, proclaimed definitions are actually descriptions of how purpose interacts, impacts, or connects to an organization’s success. “Core purpose is the organization’s fundamental reason for being. An effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the company’s work—it taps their idealistic motivations—and gets at the deeper reasons for an organization’s existence beyond just making money” (Spence & Rushing, 2009, p. 9).

Uncovering a more specific definition of purpose in business, as well as its attributes (perhaps yielding a typology), might create a foundation upon which organizations could build their own unique culture of purpose. The interview transcriptions were analyzed focusing on organizational attributes connected to organizational purpose and/or individual meaning and then also to organizational culture tied to general meaningfulness (see below: Meaningfulness IN and AT Work). Lastly, certain themes were explored and identified through the lens of corporate social responsibility’s influence on an individual’s sense of meaning.

Many of the participants interviewed (N = 9) note a significant affinity to “the desire to make the world a little better than I found it.” Out of all themes identified, serving others, flexibility, autonomy, making an impact, and creating value from their work were widely discussed.

A list of characteristics described by interviewees follows:

  • Provide a way to make an impact
  • Make profit the second priority
  • Care about doing the right thing
  • Be perceived as making a difference/doing good
  • Allow for employee autonomy/responsibility
  • Offer volunteer opportunities
  • Provide flexibility
  • Have strong and visible values/morals
  • Care about what their people/customers/clients care about
  • Maximize benefit rather than profits
  • Create an exceptional work environment that empowers people
  • Deliver a product or service that creates a better world
  • Demonstrate beliefs through actions
  • Make employees part of something bigger than themselves
  • Identify passions of their people and how to put them to work
  • Understand what motivates employees
  • Bring out the best in others
  • Place the needs of others above your own
  • Show who and why you hire the people you do
  • Build meaningful relationships
  • Promote trust and transparency
  • Focus not only on getting things done but how and why they get done

These and other characteristics could substantiate the development of a definition and/or typology of a purpose-driven organization. An interviewee’s comments aim in this direction: “I think it has to do with the people you attract and work with. We all share similar values in terms of how we want to work and leadership [is committed to] constantly spreading the mission and keeping the mission alive.”


The current findings point to interrelated links between meaning in life, meaningful work, intrinsic motivators, and corporatesocial responsibly. The following interpretations are meant to organize and illustrate the various links and relationships.

The Presence of and Search for Meaning

Ninety-percent of respondents indicated that they have a good sense of what makes their job meaningful. For example, one interviewee explains, “When you see the impact you make, that underscores the importance and value in and meaning of the work.”

The presence and search variables show evidence of survey respondents’ perceived presence of and/or search for meaning in life. Results show that 75% of employees feel that they have meaning in their lives and/or are motivated to find meaning i.e. are engaged in efforts to deepen their sense of meaning in life (Figure 4). This may indicate that a high number of individuals would want their work to contribute to the overall meaning they find in life. An interviewee notes, “Purpose is about being able to ascribe some meaning to the work that I do.”

Further, considering the positive relationship between the presence of meaning in life and making meaning through work variables, it appears there is a direct connection between having meaning in your life and work being the source of that meaning. As one interviewee says, “There is something inherent in the work that I’m doing that is meaningful.”

Meaningfulness AT and IN Work – We Need Both

Glavas (2012) developed a model of meaningfulness and how it is achieved that draws on two approaches. Meaningfulness at work is drawn from membership in the organization while meaningfulness in work stems from the actual work one does. Glavas’ (2012) study shows that organizations need both in order to establish employee engagement and achieve value alignment. Results from the current study support this idea. Meaningfulness at work (as measured by the affective commitment variable) and meaningfulness in work (as measured by the meaningful work variable) are strengthened when coupled together. One interviewee explains, “I feel like I work for a company that tries to do good by the people who work for it and I think there’s a lot to be said for that. I have worked for places where that was not the case and it was a much harder place for me to be an employee.”

The “embedded individual” might be the ideal employee. This person is a completely engaged employee, loves the company and the work he or she does personally (Glavas, 2012). This individual is preferred over a disengaged employee who ranks low in both areas of affective commitment and meaning at work. But the question remains: how is meaningfulness at and in work developed and sustained? A comment from an interviewee points to an answer: “If leaders care enough to invest in their people they usually care enough to invest in things outside the organization – if they care about their workers feeling meaning and purpose in their jobs than they are probably doing something externally meaningful and purposeful.”

Corporate Social Responsibility – A Predictor of Meaningful Work

 Interviewees’ comments demonstrate the influence corporate social responsibility has on meaning: “…this [doing good] isn’t something nice to have to make employees feel like you are the right kind of company – it actually goes beyond that.” Another notes, “I would love to do more volunteering than I do and have it more connected to my job.”

Additional evidence of the unique contribution corporate social responsibility can make for individuals is found in that a perceived presence of corporate social responsibility is a significant predictor of affective commitment, employee engagement, and meaningful work (Table 3).

Two approaches may be taken from Mirvis (2012) in the interest of further illuminating the connection between purpose, meaningful work, and corporate social responsibility:

  • Relational Engagement, where an organization and its employees together make a commitment  to  social responsibility;
  • Developmental Engagement, where a company aims to activate and develop more fully its employees (and the firm in general) to produce greater value for business and society.

Both the relational and developmental engagement models consider corporate social responsibility to be central to the identity of the organization. One interviewee explains, “There has to be a component in our work or a feeling that in some manner of speaking we’re making the world a better place.” These approaches can be used by companies to fulfill employees’ aspirations to live and work responsibly, engaging individuals to realize their personal purpose (Mirvis, 2012). Another interviewee notes, “[Corporate Social Responsibility is a way] to provide an option through the company to allow people to fulfill their desire to give back. It is a big part of our culture.”

Results show that there is a significant positive relationship between employees who have a good sense of what makes their life meaningful and those who see a connection between their work and the larger social good of their community. This suggests that individuals who know what provides meaning in life can connect it to the greater good impact their work might have. Results show 57% of the respondents see that their effort at work makes a positive contribution and benefits others or society.

When companies develop corporate social responsibility initiatives internally and externally, employees can live their values through their work. This provides meaning and ultimately strengthens the bond between employee and organization. One interviewee reports, “There is definitely some drive from the owners of the company to push things in that [doing good] direction.”

The Rise of Intrinsic Outcomes

No longer are employees predominantly extrinsically motivated by rewards or tangible benefits. Intrinsic motivation involves engaging in behavior because it is personally rewarding. Previous research also shows that the variable meaning making through work has the highest correlation with intrinsic work motivation (Steger et al., 2012). Affective commitment (i.e. emotional attachment to the organization) is correlated with greater employee motivation (Meyer, Allen & Gellatly, 1990). For example, one interviewee reports, “The ability to connect one’s personal cause, meaningful work, focus, etc. to a corporate cause and direction is fulfilling.” Employees want to feel proud to identify with their organization and form an affective commitment. With this, they might adopt behaviors that support the organization by speaking well publicly and making efforts to perform better. Perceived corporate social responsibility may also improve intrinsic satisfaction, which also increases emotional attachment, potentially creating more commitment to improving organizational performance.

When people see more humanistic organizational values and find opportunities for meaning, they are healthier, happier, and engage in a more collaborative manner. These are the result of affective commitment (Rego & e Cunha, 2008). Corporate social responsibility seems to be a mechanism through which an employee can fulfill his or her personal motivations by being a part of something, which positively impacts society. Another interviewee notes, “There is a perceived aspect that the company cares – that is important to me because I would have a hard time working for a company that didn’t.”

Implications for Practitioners

The following implications are meant to be guidelines for organizational leadership, people managers, and employees who wish to develop greater purpose in business and work life. Developing and sustaining a higher level of purpose and meaning requires a change in how business practices are approached. A beginning is found in four key difference-makers.

The Transformation of Culture – Be Intentional

 “Purpose provides a coherent, integrated framework for people to understand the important what’s, how’s, and why’s of the organization.” ~ Perry Pascarella & Mark Forhman, The Purpose-Driven Organization: Unleashing the Power of Direction and Commitment

Determining “the why” establishes the drive of an organization—the purpose or cause or belief that is intentional; it is built on generating value internally for employees and externally for stakeholders and customers. Used as a compass, purpose can provide a sense of direction and guidelines for leaders to steer by as part of the DNA of the organization (Alvession, 2013). In Deloitte’s 2014 Core Beliefs & Culture Survey Executive Summary, the report states “82% of respondents who work for an organization with a strong sense of purpose say they are confident that their organization will grow this year.” Based on this study, Deloitte (2014) underscores the “significant impact a ‘culture of purpose’ can play in fostering a thriving business community,” claiming that “organizations with a strong sense of purpose are more likely to embrace diversity and differing opinions, encourage innovation among employees, and provide the tools and resources for employees to realize their full potential” (p. 2).

Indicators point to the vital nature of decisions an organization makes to prioritize purpose. By understanding organizational attributes of purpose that are tied to fulfilling meaningfulness for employees, we might uncover solutions, which increase success. A purpose-driven organization succeeds because leadership provides vision, information, resources, and feedback to ultimately create, embed, and evolve the culture (Pascarella & Forhman, 1989; Schein, 1984). Clarity of purpose provides leaders with the means to make quicker, better and bolder purpose- informed decisions, which is shown to improve performance (Mackey & Sisodia, 2013; Spence & Rushing, 2009). One interviewee, a culture consultant, comments that she has “seen purpose become a meaningful part of company culture in ways that have never been seen before.”

For business leaders:

  • Be intentional about developing your organizations purpose and embed it in the culture.
  • Develop a way to understand what creates meaning for your employees (e.g. survey, focus groups, etc.) so that those attributes can be incorporated into your culture.

For employees:

  • Learn how to identify the characteristics of a purpose-driven organization especially those that demonstrate attributes that are most important to you.
  • Be active in transforming and sustaining your organization’s culture.

The Power of Purpose in a Transparent World

“The aspirational but actionable purpose introduces a shared intent with impact beyond the organization itself. Because it captures an ideal, a purpose goes beyond profitable growth, shareholder value, or any other measure of whether you are doing things right. A purpose, instead, is a pledge to do the right things.” ~ Christoph Lueneburger, A Culture of Purpose

In the future, without purpose, engaging and motivating employees will be increasingly difficult which will in turn likely negatively impact customer satisfaction. By contrast, with purpose, an organization can provide value, create a culture of purpose, and develop a mutually supportive relationship between measures of employee engagement and the mission of the organization. In this age of the service industry, in a world of high-speed technology and instantaneous information, it is important to recognize and capitalize on the strongest of marketing resources— your people.

Kahn (1990) claims that meaningfulness is supported by the degree to which one’s job is central to one’s life and is demonstrated by one’s willingness to exert effort on the part an organization. No longer can companies only worry about the bottom-line, profit, and growth. They must decide and be clear about what kind of company they want to be, what they will stand for, and why they exist. An interviewee notes, “It’s one thing to say all the right words and it’s something else to do all the right things.” Employees, if they feel their work is meaningful, will serve as “brand ambassadors” (Mirvis, 2012). Arguably, employees who find meaning in their work will represent their organizations in a positive light.

For business leaders:

  • Communicate your purpose clearly and specifically (not just under the corporate social responsibility  banner).
  • Empower your people with meaningfulness so they will be more emotionally attached and  become  brand ambassadors.

For employees:

  • When you work for a company that is purpose-driven and provides meaning, share it!
  • Encourage your leadership to make your organization’s purpose known internally and externally.

Work Matters and Plays an Important Role

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” ~ Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Because most people spend a majority of their time at work, it is important to understand the role it plays in influencing overall meaningfulness found in life. The literature is clear: employee engagement helps individuals integrate their work and personal lives showing that through work people can be more joyful, balanced, purposeful, and nourished (Gibbons, 2007). Employees who are apathetic or detached will be less inclined to give an effort and the performance of the organization will decline. For example, one interviewee explains, “All the pieces were there [at my former job], except for meaningful work, so that launched me into looking for a new opportunity.” There are both practical and humanistic reasons to create meaningful work for employees. Results show that the connection between meaningful work, commitment, engagement, and motivation are critical to a organization’s success and, just as other research has shown these are linked to employee retention, customer satisfaction, productivity, and profitability (Steger et al., 2012; May, Gilson & Harter 2004).

For business leaders:

  • Work hard to create jobs that are meaningful for individuals and communicate that meaning in the job   description.
  • Be clear about seeking out those individuals who want meaningful jobs—people who love the company’s mission and people who genuinely want to create value and make an impact.

For employees:

  • Understand what gives you meaning at work and ask for it from your employer.
  • Ask yourself if you are an “embedded individual”—are you completely engaged, and do you love your company AND your job?

Corporate Social Responsibility Can Make the Difference

“A clear, compelling and credible purpose bigger than your product® is the first order of business for anyone seeking to build truly great organizations” ~ Mats Lederhausen, Be-Cause

By better understanding the value employees place on specific corporate social responsibility initiatives, organizations can provide opportunities that create the most meaning for employees. Whether adding to their existing corporate social responsibility programming or starting from scratch, an organization can benefit from learning what is important to its employees. Corporate social responsibility can be a key driver of meaningful work and a defining factor of a purpose- driven organization.

Results show that corporate social responsibility is a predictor of meaningful work and can influence employee behavior. Being clear about the structure of corporate social responsibility programming, at the organizational level, while at the same time identifying employee-centered strategies, supports the overall success of a company. An example comes from one interviewee, a business founder: “Part of the journey we started was doing work that was grounded in making a difference. We wanted to develop [a company] that really had an impact on people’s lives.” There is good reason for leadership to care about employee engagement. Organizations might do well to pay attention and make an effort to understand the value employees place on their company being a good corporate citizen. This is a way to win talent and keep it. Moving the needle in the right direction toward meaningful employee engagement, toward purpose in business could have an immense impact in the world.

For business leaders:

  • Make corporate social responsibility an external and internal initiative with clear connections  to  your  organization’s purpose.
  • Utilize corporate social responsibility as a tool for employee recruitment and retention and achieving increased commitment and motivation.

For employees:

  • Understand what provides meaning for you. Do you want to give back personally or work for a company that is a good corporate citizen? Or both? Then, determine if your company supports your wish.
  • Look under the hood: is your company saying and doing the right things? Are you truly supported and encouraged to engage in socially responsible programming?

Limitations and Future Research

It is the goal of this study to contribute significantly to the empirical understanding of purpose in business. Empirical research in this area is lacking and the current study could be a building block for developing other ways to define and measure purpose in business. Further exploration might determine key attributes that, when applied to various and/or specific companies and industries, may lead to best practices in developing a purpose-driven organization.

The primary limitation of this study is that corporate social responsibility is just one variable that can impact employee sense of meaning; there may be others. While this study shows a correlation exists between corporate social responsibility and meaningful work, what creates meaning for any one person is an individual matter (as seen in the interviews). It is possible that the sample is not representative of the general population. Self-selecting respondents might have been naturally more interested in the topic, which possibly resulted in inflated mean scores on some of the scales. Lastly, a limitation lies in the immaturity of the field of study (as reflected in the number of variables used and the diversity of definitions considered). While the variables themselves are mature and the scales confirmed, their connections to purpose are only now being explored and implied.

Research suggests that there is need for well-designed and conceptually sound measures of meaningful work (Steger et al., 2012) that could then be developed further to assess employee engagement (over and above a standard engagement survey). This might ultimately yield more value. Additionally, efforts should be made to research samples of people who are not currently working full-time (e.g. job seekers, those in transition, and those entering the workforce for the first time).

It would be helpful to identify workplaces where meaning matters and profile those cultures to “determine the impact of meaningful work on individual performance and organizational effectiveness” (Chalofsky, 2013, p. 80). A full range of organizational benefits of employing individuals who perceive their work as meaningful may be revealed. Finding such companies may be difficult. A good start would be those that already appear on the following lists: B Corporations, Dow Jones Sustainability Index, CRA Top 100, Global CSR REPTRAK 100, GameChangers500, and Conscious Companies.

Conclusion – Is Purpose in Business a Trend or Will it Become the Norm?

The impetus for this study was to bring order to an undefined yet trending topic. This study reviews a mix of factors that surround the topic of purpose in business, suggests the need for a clear definition, and highlights attributes that are seeking to emerge and become organized.

>Corporate social responsibility, once a trend, is now well-established and developing strength. It seems likely that purpose in business will follow a similar pattern.

This study, along with a growing body of research, suggests corporate social responsibility and meaningfulness at work are related. Corporate social responsibility appears to be an important aspect of purpose-driven organizations and may be key to fulfilling a sense of meaning for employees. Individuals engaged in meaningful work at a purpose-driven organization seem to have characteristics that are desirable: they are more engaged, committed, intrinsically motivated, and show greater involvement in organizational citizenship. Companies that actively support programs associated with corporate social responsibility are anticipated to be successful, in large part because their employees feel their work matters.>

While the specific attributes are still coming into view, this study allows business leaders and other researchers to identify potential individual and organizational benefits of a work culture oriented toward purpose and meaning, and also how to cultivate such a culture.


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Appendix A: Survey Design

Please note, some of the questions in this survey are very similar or even repeat. That is intentional. Please read each question but answer with your first reaction, gut feeling.

Please provide the following demographic information about you and your company:

1. What is your tenure at your current company? (select one)

  • Less than 1 year
  • 1-3 years
  • 4-6 years
  • 7-9 years
  • 10+ years

2. How would you describe your current level? (select one)

  • Entry level
  • Middle management (people managers)
  • Upper management (i.e. Sr. Director, VP, C-suite)

3. In what region do you work? (drop down)

  • United States
  • Canada
  • South America
  • Europe
  • Middle East
  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Asia Pacific (Australia, New Zealand)

4. Please provide your company name (information will only be used to identify company demographic information - industry, size, age, private/public):

5. What is your definition of purpose in business? (open-ended)

6. What is the purpose of your organization? (open-ended)


This section is intended to understand the degree to which you have meaning in your life.

Please answer the following questions according to the scale (Strongly Agree, Agree, Somewhat Agree, Somewhat Disagree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree).

  1. I understand my life’s meaning.
  2. I am looking for something that makes my life feel meaningful.
  3. I am always looking to find my life’s purpose.
  4. My life has a clear sense of purpose.
  5. I have a good sense of what makes my life meaningful.
  6. I have discovered a satisfying life purpose.
  7. I am always searching for something that makes my life feel significant.
  8. I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life.
  9. My life has no clear purpose.
  10. I am searching for meaning in my life.


This section is intended to understand the degree to which you find meaning in your work.

Please answer the following questions according to the scale (Strongly Agree, Agree, Somewhat Agree, Somewhat Disagree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree).

  1. My work drives me to go the extra mile.
  2. I am enthusiastic about working for my organization.
  3. I am proud to work for my organization.
  4. I am passionate about my work.
  5. My work energizes me.
  6. I am highly committed to my organization.
  7. I would recommend working for my organization to others.
  8. I feel a strong personal connection to my organization.
  9. It would be difficult for me to leave my organization.
  10. I continue to work here more out of choice than necessity.
  11. I rarely think about looking for a job with another organization.
  12. I am satisfied with the way my company is taking responsibility for its employees.
  13. Overall, I am satisfied with the way my company manages social responsibility (an ethical framework which suggests that an entity has an obligation to act for the benefit of society at large).
  14. I would be very happy to spend the rest of my career with this organization.
  15. I enjoy discussing my organization with people outside it.
  16. I really feel as if this organization’s problems are my own.
  17. I think that I could easily become as attached to another organization as I am to this one.
  18. I do not feel like ‘part of the family’ at my organization.
  19. I do not feel ‘emotionally attached’ to this organization.
  20. This organization has a great deal of personal meaning for me.
  21. I do not feel a strong sense of belonging to my organization.
  22. I experience joy at work.
  23. I believe others experience joy as a result of my work.
  24. My spirit is energized by my work.
  25. The work I do is connected to what I think is important in life.
  26. I look forward to coming to work most days.
  27. I see connection between my work and the larger social good of my community.
  28. I understand what gives my work personal meaning.
  29. I have found a meaningful career.
  30. I view my work as contributing to my personal growth.
  31. My work really makes no difference in the world.
  32. I understand how my work contributes to my life’s meaning.
  33. I have a good sense of what makes my job meaningful.
  34. I know my work makes a positive difference in the world.
  35. My work helps me better understand myself.
  36. I have discovered work that has a satisfying purpose.
  37. My work helps me make sense of the world around me.
  38. The work I do serves a greater purpose.


This section is intended to understand the degree to which you think your company is socially responsible.

Please answer the following questions according to the scale (Strongly Agree, Agree, Somewhat Agree, Somewhat Disagree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree).

  1. My company does enough towards protecting the environment.
  2. I believe that my company is a fair market participant (a producer or supplier of a marketable good or service that is functioning in a fair, ethical and moral way).
  3. I believe that my company is maintaining a good reputation/positive image in public.
  4. Being ethical and socially responsible is a high priority for my organization.
  5. Social innovation is a large part of our business activities.
  6. I believe my company does enough to support cultural and charitable initiatives and campaigns.
  7. The organization I work for cares about whether my spirit is energized by my work.
  8. I feel positive about the values of this organization.
  9. The organization is concerned about the poor in our community.
  10. The organization cares about all its employees.
  11. The organization has a conscience.
  12. I feel connected with this organization’s goals.
  13. This organization is concerned about the health of those who work here.


Thank you for your contribution to my research study. As a next step, I will be conducting 30-45 minutes interviews to dig deeper into how purpose in business influences employee engagement at work.

Would you be open to being contacted by the researcher for a one-on-one virtual or in- person interview?

  • Yes
  • No

Thank you for being willing to participate in a research interview. Please provide the following contact information.

•    Name ______________________________

•    Email ______________________________

Thank you for your contribution to my research survey.

Appendix B: ANOVA Analysis Results


Appendix C: Interview Protocol

1. MAIN QUESTION – Let’s begin by taking about what purpose in business means to you? How would you explain or define it?


  • What do you think the distinguishing qualities of a purpose-driven organization might be? Describe how you see those in your organization.
  • What kinds of programs or experiences are created that bring purpose to life for the employees?
  • What structures do you think need to be in place to enable an organization to carry out its purpose? Can you share examples from your organization?
  • Do you think the purpose is clear internally and externally?

 2. MAIN QUESTION - Based on the preliminary survey, you indicated that purpose and meaningful work is important to you. Can you please tell me specifically how your organization fulfills that for you?


  • What are the attributes/elements of purpose in your organization?
  • Describe how you see a connection between the work you do and the purpose of the organization?
  • What does purpose-driven work look like in your day-to-day work?
  • What structures in your organization enable your to carry out your purpose?

 3. MAIN QUESTION – Can you tell me your thoughts on corporate social responsibility initiatives or social activities that are in place in your organization?


  • Do you see a direct correlation between purpose in business, social/societal betterment and raising consciousness at your organization?
  • How is purpose tied to corporate social responsibility or social impact/innovation aspects of the organization?

4. MAIN QUESTION – What do you think would make your work even more meaningful? Is there anything missing?


  • Is there something your work/organization could do to create an even greater sense of purpose? If so, what?
  • What do you care about? What would you say are the values of your company?

 5. Complete the following sentence:

“I feel my work is most meaningful when ______ because_______.

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