Why Great Leaders Use Purpose Not Money to Drive Engagement

Why Great Leaders Use Purpose Not Money to Drive Engagement

John Eades 22/03/2021 6
Why Great Leaders Use Purpose Not Money to Drive Engagement

There is this common belief that disengaged employees are bad employees.

The reasons are numerous, but a few common behaviors include; laziness, boredom, uninspired, and limited productivity.

While it's undoubtedly true these aren't the habits that produce excellent results; it doesn't mean a disengaged employee is a bad employee forever.

Take Mark, the CEO of a medium-sized manufacturing company, as an example. Thanks to his entrepreneurial spirit and relentless work ethic, he and a small team grew his business from nothing to $15M in revenue over ten years. But as the company saw revenue plateau for three consecutive years, Mark began to lose interest.  

He started working fewer hours, stopped holding daily huddles with his management team, and found himself just going through the motions. You could say he was lazy, bored, and uninspired, thus he became disengaged from an outside perspective.  

Thanks to his team and external coaching help, Mark began to recognize what his disengagement was costing his own company and how it was negatively affecting his people. Through a lot of hard work and soul searching, he rediscovered his passion and purpose and committed to new habits to replace the stale ones. Mark has transformed his leadership approach in just six short months and has breathed new life into the business and his team.  

He also provides an example that disengaged employees aren't bad employees, and no one is immune to becoming disengaged, even the CEO.

Disengaged employees aren't bad employees permanently, and no one is immune to becoming disengaged. 

How Disengaged Are We?

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Now before we get into the state of engagement in the workplace, we must level set on a common definition of employee engagement. While there are tons of great definitions of employee engagement, I have come to define it this way, "Employees who are emotionally committed to the success of the team or organization, demonstrated through their actions."

When employees are engaged in this way, they are more productive, happier, and fulfilled in their professional careers. This makes it hard to imagine why anyone would sign up to be disengaged, but unfortunately, it's more popular than the latter. 

To give you an idea of how unengaged the workforce is today, Gallup research found only 39% of employees are engaged, and 14% are actively disengaged

Managers are Most Important

While the current engagement statics are no doubt a bit gloomy, I am an optimistic thinker. Instead of seeing it as a problem, I see it as an opportunity, much like many of the great leaders I have studied. Great leaders look for opportunities in problems.  

When you look at employee engagement through the lens of an opportunity instead of a problem, clarity emerges. The opportunity present is for managers to take personal responsibility instead of pawning it off on HR or relying on the bi-annual company-wide engagement survey. While Human Resources professionals are key and engagement surveys are essential, research indicates that managers affect 70% of team engagement variance. 

So if you have a title that comes with the responsibility of leading others at work, know the actions you exhibit today will reflect the engagement you get tomorrow.

The actions leaders exhibit today will reflect the engagement they get tomorrow.

How to Drive Higher Levels of Engagement

Most bad leaders assume that disengagement will take care of itself if you throw money at people (If only it were this easy!). In Adam Grant's book, Think Again, he wrote, "Research across industry, shows once people are earning enough to meet their basic needs, paying them more doesn't stop them from leaving a bad job and bad bosses. In most companies, if the pay were the carrot, that would have already solved the engagement problem."

Grant is correct; while pay is essential, it won't solve the problem. One key action leaders can leverage to drive higher engagement levels is to connect the team's activity to a deeper purpose.  

Connect your team to a deeper purpose for higher engagement levels.

Shared Purpose

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Employees don't get burned out because of their work; they get burned out because they forget WHY they do their work. Because of this, leaders of high-performing teams are constantly reminding their people of the deeper purpose behind the work they do.  

One of the most prominent mistakes managers make is believing it's not their job to connect their team to a deeper purpose. Don't fall into this flawed thinking. Embrace the responsibility that you are the connector of cause.  

On a recent episode of the Follow My Lead Podcast, Rodney Showmar, the CEO of Arkansas Federal Credit Union, said, "Engaged professionals don't get up every day to do a function; they get up every day to fulfill a purpose." Showmar and his team do a phenomenal job connecting every single one of their 350+ employees to "making a difference in people's lives."

A deeper purpose like Showmar articulates has been instrumental in achieving higher levels of success for his organization. Do not go another minute without being clear on why your team is doing what it's doing. It's easy for people to get lost in the monotony of their everyday work without considering how their work impacts the larger organization and customers. 

If you're unsure how to communicate this to your team, start by answering these three complicated yet straightforward questions:

  1. What do you do? 
  2. Why do you do it? (Hint: it's got to be more than making money)
  3. What positive impact does our work have on others?

It's easy to skim past these questions, but I'm challenging you to pause. Reread them and ask yourself if each member of your team could answer it with clarity. If the answer is no, you have some work to do.


Disengaged employees aren't bad employees. Before judging them, use your empathy skills and recognize disengagement can happen to any of us. Then look in the mirror and ask yourself, "What can I do to get them emotionally committed to the success of the team?" There is a good chance the answer to that question has nothing to do with money but instead reconnecting them to the purpose behind their work.

About the Author: John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades.

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  • Andrew Charlton

    Nailed it John !

  • Rob W

    Good read

  • Kevin Webb

    Disengaged employees are not bad, they just need some extra training.

  • Karen Turner

    Great insights !

  • Danny Ralston

    The key is to unleash their motivation.

  • Peter Walker

    Such a great topic !

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John Eades

Leadership Expert

John is the CEO of LearnLoft, author of, F.M.L. Standing Out & Being a Leader and host of the 'Follow My Lead' Podcast. He writes or has been featured on Inc.com, LinkedIn Pulse, TrainingIndustry.com, eLearningIndustry.com, CNBC Money, and more. John completed his education at the University of Maryland College. 

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