Huntsman Hall, Wharton

In the modernistic surroundings of Huntsman Hall at the Wharton School, where the future of business pulses like the very neurons we were there to discuss, a surprising theme emerged during the Neuroscience Summit I attended this past Friday. As a top-ranked global thought leader in the future of work, leadership, and HR, I’ve had my fair share of epiphanies, but this one was particularly striking. At a summit where I expected the talk to be all about dopamine highs and the mysteries of the amygdala, the conversation took a sharp turn towards something far more profound: purpose.

Why the sudden spotlight on purpose?

Well, let me unpack this. if our brains had a Facebook relationship status with purpose, it would certainly be “It’s Complicated”. Let’s dive into the fascinating ways our neural circuitry and the search for meaning are more intertwined than spaghetti and meatballs.

1. The Cerebral Symphony of Purpose

Neurologically speaking, purpose isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have. It’s like the brain’s equivalent of morning coffee – it gets us going. Purpose activates our prefrontal cortex, the CEO of the brain, improving our focus and decision-making. Moreover, it tickles our limbic system, which deals with emotions and memory – making us feel all the warm and fuzzies about our work. It’s no wonder that employees aligned with their organization’s purpose are often the ones whistling while they work.

And therein lies the problem. A recent McKinsey study found that only 15 percent of frontline managers and employees were living their purpose. Compare that to 85 percent of executives and upper managers. If the employees themselves don’t know (or can’t articulate) what really makes them feel warm and fuzzy, how can you align with something you can’t see or hear or feel? Wouldn’t it make sense to help employees find their WHY?

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2. The Organizational Quest for Alignment

An organization without a clear purpose is like a GPS that keeps saying, “Recalculating”. The same goes for individuals. It leads to disoriented employees and a culture that’s about as cohesive as oil and water. But when an organization’s purpose doesn’t just align but intersects with its members’ personal missions, the magic happens. This intersection is not just a feel-good factor; it’s a strategic imperative. Employees with a shared purpose are like a flock of birds moving in perfect sync – they are more engaged, productive, and innovative.

Back to the McKinsey study for a moment. Clearly, for 70 percent of employees, organizational purpose is no more than just a poster on the wall. Companies must find a way to not just align organization and individual purpose, but to do whatever it takes so they intersect.

3. Tips for Managers: Becoming Conductors of Purpose

So, how do managers ensure this harmonious blend of individual and organizational purpose? Here are some tips that could even make Beethoven jealous of your conducting skills:

Conduct the ‘Discover Your WHY‘ Symphony:

My own polling of over 325 people, albeit unscientific, shows that fewer than 1 in 4 employees know and can articulate their purpose, their WHYs. More than one-third have no clue what it is. That’s equivalent to over 75% of your orchestra showing up to play an instrument they can’t describe. The biggest gift you can give to your employees (newly hired or tenured) is to help them find and live their WHY. Whether it’s to challenge the status quo or to inspire others, knowing their WHY will help them play their part in the organization’s symphony of purpose, even if it means they discover they are not a good fit.

Encourage Open Rehearsals:

Foster an environment where employees can share their personal WHYs. It’s like open mic night, but for purpose. This not only strengthens team bonds but also uncovers how individual WHYs can resonate with the organization’s overarching melody and how employees can connect with each other.

Personalize the Music Sheets:

Tailor roles and responsibilities to align with the individual WHYs. It’s like giving the violinist the violin part instead of the tuba score – it just sounds and feels better. Imagine the conversations between managers and employees when the focus is not just on what they do, but why they do it.

Amplify Success Stories:

Share stories of how individual contributions are part of the larger organizational narrative. It’s like a soloist highlighting within a grander concert – it inspires and brings context. Everyone loves an inspirational story. Why not create more of them?

Practice Harmonious Feedback:

Give feedback that acknowledges the individual’s WHY. It’s like fine-tuning an instrument – it’s essential for a flawless performance. #micdrop


By leading with purpose and ensuring that every member of the team understands how their role contributes to the collective goal, managers can create a work environment that’s less “Another Brick in the Wall” and more “Symphony of a Thousand”.

Remember, the human brain isn’t just motivated by carrots and sticks; it’s ignited by a quest for meaning. And when the quest for meaning at work is fulfilled, the brain lights up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve – vibrant, energized, and ready to celebrate. So let’s raise the baton and lead the way to a more purpose-driven workplace, one neuron at a time. Because at the end of the day, purpose is the brain’s ultimate puzzle – and who doesn’t love a good brain teaser?

Purpose: Work You’d Do Even If You Didn’t Get Paid

For this week’s except I dug into my Geeks Geezers and Googlization vault to highlight Chip Conley’s definition of purpose.

Watch the Chip Conley’s full interview from earlier this year.

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