The Sense of Purpose and Performance

Having purpose is the key to survival, according to Victor Frankl. When facing loss, grief, and hardship, it can be the slim difference between staying afloat and sinking to despair. Victor Frankl’s extraordinary work – Man’s Search of Meaning – had a big impact on my understanding of life, although it’s just a piece of a large puzzle (good summary here).

Today, I read there’s a correlation between having purpose and performance reviews, which amazed me. According to “The Power of Moments”, the top 20 percentile of highest performers in any organization are people who are both passionate and have a sense of purpose for what they do. Also, the sense of purpose beats passion to the dust.

What is Purpose

The purpose is the feeling that what we do gives back to the society, that it has meaning beyond being paid or making a profit. The book gives examples of radiologists, lifeguards, and janitors – how a simple motivational effort focused on the impact of their work highly increased their efforts. That’s not hard for lifeguards, they save lives. Radiologists were shown photos of the people whose scans they were reading and that increased their efforts. Chip Heath and Dan Heath managed to find a research on an overperforming hospital janitor who knew that the purpose of his work is to help people recover. He would not only keep the place clean but talk to patients who have no visitors.

What about building entirely for-profit systems like Google Adwords? How would something like that give back to society when it is clearly focused on making shareholders rich and in many ways makes the world a worse place? Or about a project that’s obviously pointless like the infamous “Ship Your Enemies Glitter”?

Cultivating the Sense of Purpose

The Power of Moments suggests that the sense of purpose can be cultivated. This throws the ball for work performance deep into the manager’s field. Books like “Managing Humans” advice to nurture productivity by positive feedback, noticing things, and treating people well. “Radical Candor” is a research in quality of feedback that I found nice. The difference between books like that and the sense of purpose idea is on what’s being communicated and how.

A person knowing the purpose of things can go above and beyond completing a task. A task for a developer is something like “Build a form to collect this and that information”. That developer can end the year thinking of themselves: “I had a good year. I built 23 forms that collect information.” Unfortunately, that point of view is highly unlikely. Building 23 forms is nobody’s dream. To reach a level where any of that makes sense they may need to complete the Five Whys and ask why until purpose is discovered, somewhere far away from the data collection. A software engineer knowing that these 23 forms make education better and help kids have a successful life could suggest a radical 233 forms approach that’s infinitely better ๐Ÿ™‚

“The Power of Moments” provides tools in how to share that purpose so that it has an impact on people. For software engineers, it might be as simple as communicating the company’s goals in specially built moments. Think about Elon Musk, a giant hall full of ‘Ship your enemy glitter’ employees, a carefully crafted event for maximum impact on everyone. There’s electricity in the air.

In 2020 we ship glitter to Mars

— Elon Musk

That’s purpose.

Is Purpose Enough

Most certainly, no, neither is passion. The last quotation was not good enough so I found this, to counter everything I wrote above.

By any normal measure, our growth was great, but it quickly became clear it could be a lot better if we operated less like a soccer team of seven-year-olds: all of us chasing the ball, none of us in position.

— Kim Scott. Radical Candor


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