Understanding The Purpose-Driven Worker (And Why It’s Okay If You’re Not One)

A new survey that looks at what motivates people to work shows that companies proving they do something beyond making money is important–but that people work for many different reasons.

Why do you go to work in the morning? Is it primarily for the money? Are you looking for status and recognition? Or, do you feel a sense of purpose–perhaps because you feel you are adding value to society or the community, or directly helping someone by working.


Aaron Hurst author of the Purpose Economy says humans fall into three camps: money-oriented, status-oriented, and purpose-oriented. Individually, we may not be fully any one of these things. But our orientation towards work does emphasize different aspects. One type of person sees work as an “unavoidable necessity” and a means to have a life outside work. Another type wants “to be successful and prove himself” even if it means doing boring things to move ahead. A third type “believes work has the potential to be a valuable and meaningful part of their life.”

Hurst’s firm Imperative is out with a new survey looking at purpose trends across the world, and between industries. It’s based on responses from 26,151 LinkedIn members in 40 different countries (LinkedIn was a partner in the project). Overall, it finds that 37% of LinkedIn members are “purpose oriented,” from a high of 53% in Sweden to a low of 23% in Saudi Arabia. You can see the whole survey here.

In general, purpose scores are higher in countries where women are more involved in the workforce (a previous survey in the U.S. found that women are more purpose-oriented than men). Scandinavia and northern Europe, where women are often in leadership positions, have the highest scores. The U.S. has a 40% purpose-oriented workforce. The scores are lowest in the Middle East and Africa.

Hurst argues that purpose is not necessarily linked to the type of job we have. He once met a doctor in Cleveland who told him he felt real purpose in his work. He wanted to help people and keep getting better at his job. His brother, also a doctor, was only doing his job for status reasons. He wanted to be respected by his family and friends. And a third brother, also a doctor, was just concerned about money; he did it because it paid well. To Hurst, this illustrates that three people can do the same job and yet feel quite differently about why.

Hurst finds that people who work in social professions, like health care or education or a nonprofit field, don’t necessarily feel purpose. More than half don’t, in fact. At the same time, there are plenty of people in fields not associated with purpose who do feel purpose. “You can’t say ‘I work in banking and so I don’t have to have purpose,’ because plenty of people do. And, you shouldn’t assume in career-planning that one path leads naturally to purpose, and one path leads to a lack of purpose,” Hurst says.

Purpose people are more engaged, more productive, better champions of the company, and tend to stay longer in their roles, according to the surveys. So companies should look to hire purpose-oriented people when they can, and promote them where possible.


“Be clear about the purpose of your organization and products,” Hurst recommends. “It’s not about a big fancy purpose statement. You have to say why your company exists beyond making money. Also, find purpose-oriented people in your organization. They can help with the recruitment process and be a magnet for similar people.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.