For two groups of lifeguards at a community center in the Midwest, the answer was, a resounding “yes,” according to a study conducted by Wharton Professor Adam Grant shared in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, The Power of Moments.

This week we are exploring the power of purpose at work.  A definition of purpose I like is: Above and beyond making money, what difference do we make?

Exhibit one: the 32 lifeguards at the rec center.  Adam divided them into two groups:

The Personal Benefit Group read and discussed four stories describing how other lifeguards had benefited later in life from skills they learned on the job

The Meaning Group read and discussed four stories about lifeguards who had rescued drowning swimmers

In the weeks following the experiment, the Meaning Group signed up for 43% more hours of work.  

Those in the Personal Benefit Group?  

Zero change.

Not only them, but supervisors (who did not know about the two groups) were asked to assess “helping behaviors, i.e. actions taken voluntarily to help others” for each lifeguard.

Those in the Meaning Group showed a 21% increase. 

These changes occurred with nothing more dramatic than a 30-minute session in which lifeguards read and talked about four stories.  

Similar results have been shown with radiologists who were shown photos of patients whose X-rays they were scanning.  The result?  An increase in the total number scans completed as well as the accuracy.

When nurses who were assembling surgical kits met a caregiver who would use the kits, they worked 64% longer and made 15% fewer errors versus a control group.

Yesterday we looked Yale Professor Amy Wrzesniewski research that suggests it’s not the work we do, but how we see our work that matters.  

Amy believes purpose is not discovered.  It is cultivated.

One way to cultivate purpose is the “Five Why’s” exercise.  We describe what we do in our career and then answer the question: Why is that important?  We take that answer and ask again: Why is that important?”  We do this five times.  The goal is to articulate the true contribution of our work: Who is the beneficiary and how am I contributing to them?

One hospital janitor in Amy’s study had the realization that some of the patients on his wing had no one to talk to.  He made it a point to strike up small talk with them.  “Combating patient loneliness” was not part of his official job description.  But it changes how he sees his work.  

A sense of purpose sparks “above and beyond” behaviors.  

Chip and Dan share another powerful story of purpose involving a cancer patient that wasn’t responding to treatment and knew she wasn’t likely to make it out of hospital before her grandchild was born. 

So, a group of nurses helped her arrange a baby shower in the hospital.  “One of the last memories that her daughter-in-law will have is that before her mother-in-law died she gave her a baby shower that she had planned,” said one of the nurses.

This moment was a special one for the family.  

It was also a special moment for the nurses who made it happen. They went home that night knowing they had done something that mattered.

That’s purpose.


Reflection: How can we connect our team with the beneficiaries of what we do?

Action:  Journal about the “Five Why’s exercise.

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