When people find a sense of purpose, and begin to dream and chase positive goals, the benefits are limitless. They change themselves, they better their families, they improve their communities, they help their organizations and companies to perform better, they help to create wealth and prosperity, and they contribute to society in a wide range of ways.

What is it about having a purpose that has such a positive effect on these individuals? How does it affect how we feel? How does it affect our physiology? And what does all of that mean for how we choose to lead? These were the questions that led me to write my new book, People with Purpose.

The answer, of course, is supplied by neuroscientists – the people who study the nervous system and the brain, especially in relation to behaviour and learning. Why? Because global research being done in neuroscience is beginning to piece together connections between the brain and behaviour, especially at work.  

This research is providing valuable insights into how to be a more effective leader. It turns out that understanding how our brains function, and the chemicals they release, is vital to delivering our strategies successfully. 

So, what do scientists know about our brains and giving people a sense of purpose? Do they have insights that we can take into our own organizations and the teams we lead?

Dr Duncan Banks, a lifetime honorary member of the British Neuroscience Association, director of work-based learning at the Open University in Milton Keynes, and one of Britain’s leading neuroscientists, says: “Purpose is most often derived from a willingness to take part in activities for the greater good of the community. It is all a matter of whether you feel worthy or worthless.  Make them feel worthy and they will try harder. 

‘We know that enrichment has a big part to play in brain development from an early stage, even for babies. Give them a rich environment in which they develop and you’ll find they develop into better individuals. If you put someone into an un-rich, worthless environment, they are very likely to go downhill and not be able to contribute, whether this is in a business or in a community.’  

Purpose changes your brain chemistry 

‘When you have a sense of purpose, especially a sense of common purpose, your brain chemistry changes. These chemicals change everything – from your perception of pain, your ability to handle difficult and challenging environments, and even your health and well-being’, says Dr Banks.  

 ‘For all these reasons, leaders need to think about whether they make their employees feel worthless or worthy’, says Dr Banks. Do they make their employees feel a sense of common purpose, and part of a community? Do leaders communicate in the right way, involving people and listening to them, as well as persuading and encouraging them? Only by communicating effectively, can leaders make their employees feel worthy and respected. 

The positive side effect will always be an increase in performance, because people who feel worthy are much more likely to give of their discretionary effort when called on to work harder. 

Another key factor in neuroscience is whether people feel they are moving towards a reward, or away from danger. In the modern context, danger is anything people perceive as a threat – being sacked, being bullied, or being overwhelmed. Reward is not just about money, it is also about personal growth, satisfaction, or helping others. 

In either case, neurochemicals are pumped into the brain which have an effect on our physiology and our behaviours – and we have little control over these. The long-term effects of the neurochemicals that are induced when we are under threat or feeling unworthy can be extremely harmful to our health. Conversely, the neurochemicals of feeling worthy and moving to a reward a really good for our health, our mental state and our wellbeing.

As a manager, you should always think about how you are making their people feel – are you making your people feel worthy, and that they are moving towards reward? Or are you making them feel unworthy/in danger?  

The answer to that question will determine the chemistry of your employees’ brains, and therefore their behaviours. And all of that will make a massive difference to their performance, and therefore to your performance, as a manager.