Purpose Vs Passion

I’ve been thinking a bit on Purpose and Passion. And the difference between the two.

At a community recreation centre, 32 paid lifeguards were divided into 2 groups of 16. Both these groups were put on training and inducted into their roles.

The first group named as the Personal Benefit Group were asked to read 4 stories that described on how other lifeguards, down the road, benefitted from the various functional skills acquired on the job.

The second group named as the Meaning Group were asked to read another set of 4 stories on how other lifeguards had rescued drowning swimmers and saved their lives.

Rest of the training on the skill sets was exactly the same.

The response was striking. The lifeguards from the Meaning Group voluntarily signed up for 43% more number of hours in the weeks following the story intervention.

Now, the test did not stop there. All 32 were deployed under various supervisors. Each supervisor had a mix from both groups but they did not know the stories each one of them had read – whether they were from the Personal Benefit Group or the Meaning Group. The supervisors were asked to rate each of their team members on ‘helping behaviour’ in the next few weeks.

The helping behaviour of the Meaning Group increased by 21% . There was no increase in the ratings for the ‘Personal Benefit Group’. The stories read by the Meaning Group about the lifeguards saving lives of drowning swimmers seemed to have made an impact – got them seriously interested to not just sign up for 43% more hours but put in significantly higher efforts than those who just read about the functional skills benefitting the lifeguards.

Both groups were equally passionate to start with. But the lifeguards in the Meaning Group were cultivated into a purpose. That made the difference.

Purpose is the sense that you are contributing to others – that your work has a broader meaning. It is often confused with Passion – a feeling of excitement or enthusiasm you have about work. Purpose connects self to a meaning while Passion tends to be more individualistic.

Morten Hansen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley was curious to understand this distinction and he did an extensive study amongst 5000 employees to see which of these has a bigger impact on job performance.

One of the questions that he got the employees to rate themselves on was:

What I do at work makes a strong contribution to society, beyond making money’.

He designed a simple 2X2 grid on Passion and Performance and got the bosses to rank these employees in the 4 catgeories as per the grid below. Remember, the bosses did not know the details of how the employees rated themselves.

In the Fig: 1 below, employees in the ‘Low Passion-Low Purpose’ grid were ranked at an average of 10th percentile and the ones in the ‘High Purpose – High Passion’ grid were at the 80th percentile. Least motivated and the star performers, respectively. Obvious and not surprising, isn’t it?

Fig : 1

The surprise lay elsewhere. Notice in the Fig : 2 below, the ‘High Passion – Low Purpose’ – those who felt enthusiastic and excited but didn’t see purpose were ranked at just 20th percentile. However, the bosses ranked the ‘High Purpose – Low Passion’ employees at the 64th percentile. These folks weren’t the stars and outliers. But having a clarity of purpose even if they did not feel the need to show it made them valuable and high contributors.

Fig : 2

Purpose trumps Passion every single day.

Purpose helped the lifeguards to connect with the real meaning of their job: to save lives.

This is true across disciplines. Scans done by the radiologists after they were shown the photo of the patient had much higher levels of accuracy. Nurses who packed the surgical kits worked 64% longer hours and made atleast 15% lesser mistakes when they saw the caregivers who would use them.

A meaningful purpose should be intrinsic in our daily work. Unfortunately, most organisations and leaders have lost thmeselves in their pursuit for purpose. They design tick mark programs for employees to enable them to find their purpose – as if it existed somewhere else. Like community work, for example. Am afraid, it does not really serve the purpose, again.

I stumbled upon this data chart in a study by McKinsey & Company:

Leaders at the top think they are working with purpose. People down below just do not have a sense of it. The gap is embarassing,

Lots more to be done. But the starting point has to about opportunities that help employees find more personal meaning in their day-to-day work. When we live our purpose at work, we feel more fulfilled. The work we do is aligned with the company’s own purpose and that sense of fulfillment will ultimately benefit the company.

Exactly how the lifeguards in the Meaning Group were inspired to save lives.

Story Notes

The Lifeguard Study was done by Adam M. Grant in 2008 : “The Significance of Task Sigificance : Job Performance Effects, Relational Mechanisms, and Boundary Conditions’ and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

A much simplified version of this study appears in ‘The Power of Moments’ by Chip and Dan Heath.

Hansen’s Purpose Vs Passion is from his book: Great at Work: How Top Performers Work Less and Achieve More. Also has a reference in ‘The Power of Moments’

And here is the link to the McKinsey study.

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