Excerpt from Do Good at Work: How Simple Acts of Social Purpose Drive Success and Wellbeing by Bea Boccalandro
During one particular week in each of the last ten years, the New York Yankees won, on average, 74 percent of games. If you’re not as embarrassingly infatuated with baseball as I am, you might not realize this is astonishing. It easily beats their 57 percent winning average during that decade. In fact, it beats every major league team’s winning percentage back to 1954. The Yankees are at home during the week in question, but homefield advantage doesn’t explain their success. The average winning percentage during that week is still 10 percentage points higher than the decade’s homefield winning percentage (74 percent versus 64 percent).i What, then, explains this week’s outrageous success? (No, fellow Red Sox fans, it’s not that the Yankees are trouncing our team.)
The Yankees’ exceptional record during this one week is likely due to what’s at the top of the Hierarchy of Motivation. Psychologists call it “eudaimonic purpose.” Because I almost pulled a muscle trying to pronounce that word, I use a synonym: “social,” as in relating to societal good. Social—or eudaimonic—purpose is pursuing meaningful contributions to others or to a societal cause. Helping low-income families access the beach is an act of social purpose. Attaining a pay raise, upgrading our job to better match our passions or otherwise pursuing what’s on the bottom two levels of the Hierarchy of Motivation are self-oriented acts, what scientists call “hedonic” purpose.
The winning week is Yankees Helping Others Persevere & Excel (HOPE) Week. During this one week per season, players take field trips with individuals and families facing hardship. One year, for example, relief pitcher Dellin Betances and several teammates spent a day at the Bronx Zoo with an eleven-year-old boy fighting leukemia and his seven-year-old sister who donated bone marrow to her brother. When Betances did his job from the mound at Yankees stadium that evening, he didn’t give up a single hit. It’s likely that social purpose helped him succeed.
As covered earlier, in certain rare circumstances pay can motivate. Furthermore, pursuing passion, people and progress motivate across a broader set of circumstances and more effectively than pay. But all these hedonic pursuits are to social-purpose pursuits what a jeep is to a jet. We don’t progress as fast or as far when fueled by hedonic pursuits as opposed to social purpose. One study, for example, compared workers who were told their work helped charitable causes with workers in identical jobs who weren’t told this. Those who knew they were pursuing social purpose conducted equally high-quality work as those who didn’t but were 24 percent faster and had 43 percent less downtime. Another experiment studied workers scanning online images for specific patterns. One randomly selected subgroup was told that they were labeling tumor cells to assist medical researchers. The others were not given any context about the work. As in the case of the first experiment, workers who knew they were supporting the health of others processed more images than those who had no reason to believe their work promoted social purpose. In this case, however, there was a difference in quality. Despite producing more, the social-purpose workers had higher quality work. Other research uncovered that the social-purpose performance boost is so evident that supervisors notice it. Simply put, social purpose is our most powerful motivator.
Social purpose not only increases motivation and performance, it also makes us happier with our jobs. My research documented 13 percent higher job satisfaction, on average, in employees whose work experience incorporated social purpose than in those whose work didn’t. Other studies reached similar conclusions. The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen found that lack of workplace purpose is the biggest culprit in job dissatisfaction among Danes. Another European study found that incorporating social purpose into work boosted job satisfaction within a month. In fact, so many studies link social purpose to job satisfaction that researchers who systematically reviewed all the evidence say the relationship is indisputable.
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For the first mention of this phenomenon, see Anthony Rieber, “Why Yankees Have a Higher Winning Percentage During HOPE Week,” Newsday, May 27, 2017. The statistics presented herein replicate Rieber’s analysis for a slightly newer decade: from 2009 to 2018.
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