Peformance or Potential? Try Purpose.

July 26, 2015

Peformance or Potential? Try Purpose.

If you were trying to climb your way up the corporate ladder in the last couple of decades, you knew early on that your fate depended on whether you made it to the secret "HR List" or not. Our careers of late have depended on the judgments of a few as our ambitions get bottle-necked inside the 9-Box grid.


A big part of HR's job has been to oversee the reluctant managers rating and ranking employees'  performance, and assigning numbers while assessing (or guessing) employees' potential. Those coveted "HiPo" lists pitted team members against each other only to ensure that the handpicked few took an upward ride to the top of the corporate hierarchy.


To predict the success of an individual employee, we have developed and deployed finely engineered assessments and succession processes ranging anywhere from the personality types to the learning agility models. Why then do surveys after surveys of  CEOs show that all these measures do not deliver? The shortage of leadership is well documented and talent based organizations such as Google have abandoned GPAs as a recruitment criterion while others are questioning the value of the 9-Box.


As the HiPo culture we have created is being challenged and revisited, what surfaces is an earlier overlooked and undervalued motivator: purpose.


Psychology has long studied the interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation at work, trying to explain the difference between "having to" and "wanting to" work (see Academic Press 2000). The concept that is coming into the front and center of organizational vocabulary now is that of purpose.


Workforce orientation towards purpose was codified and explained by the globally recognized social entrepreneur Aaron Hurst in his 2014 book, The Purpose Economy. Hurst went on to cofound with ex-Googler Arthur Woods the start-up Imperative whose sole focus is to help companies reorient their career development systems toward intrinsic purposeful focus.


What Imperative's research has shown is that "people who define work as, first and foremost, being about fulfillment and purpose outperform their peers on nearly every measure."


Not to be misunderstood, extrinsic motivators, such as financial rewards and social status do matter. But those are shorter-term incentives. To get us to the promised state of talent rich sustainable organizational performance, we need to recalibrate our internal organizational HR systems toward purpose-driven professionals and fine tune workplaces for purpose.


As Hurst and Woods predict, "In the next decade, we will see a talent war to attract and retain this potent segment of the workforce as study after study points to their transformational power." (Stay tuned for the upcoming HRPS white paper on Purpose Driven Professionals.)


With Imperative driving the conversation about "purpose at work"  beyond solely mission oriented not-for-profits, we might very soon see the much-needed shift away from the HiPotential few to the purposeful many.

The Authors: 

Anna A. Tavis, Ph.D., is executive editor of the People + Strategy journal and an adjunct graduate professor at New York University. She is the founder of She can be reached at or