Why having a purpose is vital for work performance

by L&D22 Sep 2016

For many people, positive feedback in the workplace or on social media is linked to a rush of self-esteem.

However, one group don't really experience that rush: people with a sense of purpose.

A sense of purpose is an "ongoing motivation that is self-directed, oriented toward the future and beneficial to others", according to Cornell University researchers.

People who have purpose normally agree with statements like "To me, all the things I do are worthwhile" and "I have lots of reasons for living."

Now, researchers have found that having a sense of purpose allows people to "navigate virtual feedback with more rigidity and persistence”.

“With a sense of purpose, they're not so malleable to the number of ‘likes’ they receive," said Anthony Burrow, co-author of the study and assistant professor of human development.  

"Purposeful people noticed the positive feedback, but did not rely on it to feel good about themselves."

Burrow said that even though it’s great to receive positive feedback (online or otherwise), he wouldn't recommend basing your self-esteem on it.

"Otherwise, on days when you receive few likes, you'll feel worse. Your self-esteem would be contingent on what other people say and think," he said.

"Over time that's not healthy, that's not adaptive. You want to show up with rigidity: 'I know who I am and I feel good about that'."

The researchers also believe that purposeful people have the ability to "see themselves in the future and act in ways that help them achieve their goals".

Therefore, they are able to “inhibit impulsive responses to perceived rewards, such that they prefer larger downstream incentives to smaller immediate ones”, according to the co-author Nicolette Rainone.

Those who lack a sense of purpose can act against their own interests even when something positive happens, she added.

"For example, if I'm studying for a big exam and get a good score on a practice test, that can make me think, 'Oh, I really don't need to study'. And that may ultimately decrease my final score, because I stopped persisting," Rainone said.

"Having a purpose keeps you emotionally steady which is essential for successful academic and work performance."

The first experiment involved nearly 250 active Facebook users. They measured the participants' self-esteem and sense of purpose, and asked how many likes they typically got on photos they posted.

The users who reported getting more likes on average also reported greater self-esteem. However, those with a high level of purpose showed no change in self-esteem, no matter how many likes they got.

"That is, receiving more likes only corresponded with greater self-esteem for those who had lower levels of purpose," Burrow said.

In the second study, the researchers asked about 100 people to take a selfie and post it to a mock social media site, "Faces of the Ivies". The students were told that their photo had received a high, low or average number of likes.

Again, getting a high number of likes boosted self-esteem but only for the participants who had less purpose.

"In fact, those higher in purpose showed no elevation in self-esteem, even when they were told they received a high number of likes," Burrow said.

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.