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What HR professionals need to know about the neuroscience of values and purpose

Whodunit novels have been popular since the beginning of modern literature – up to that point it was mainly about the gods, destiny and an exaggerated focus on morals and conduct. We all love our witty detectives because they have the ability to find clues, put them together and out the killer in surprising and unique ways.

TV shows have also tapped into this wonderful entertainment resource but the suspense is not as great – it’s always the guest star of the show who turns out to be the guilty one.

We are thrilled by a good mystery because our brain thrives on mystery. Yet regardless of the plot, the setting and the corky characters, there is one thing that all whodunit stories have in common – the detective needs to figure out the motive. Why would somebody be driven to take somebody’s life?

Once that is out in the open, the solution to the puzzle becomes obvious.

Purpose matters

Much like the clever Hercules Poirot or the delightfully witty Miss Marple, HR professionals working in today’s organizations need to understand and work with the notion of ‘purpose’. This looks not at what and why people were driven to do something in the past but rather at why they will keep doing things (mainly to the benefit of the company) in the future.

Millennial employees (today’s majority) care more about working for an organization that has a purpose they can adhere to than earning a substantial sum of money every month.

Generation Z who is rapidly becoming of hiring age seems to be “more altruistic than the workforce before them: 74% of Gen Z believes jobs should have a greater meaning than just bringing home the bacon, compared to 69% of those in older generations (and specifically 70% of Millennials).”

Read more: 4 Things to consider when training Generation Z

Without a doubt, it’s organizations that need to adopt values that appeal to the employees and not the other way around.

The neuroscience of values

Neuroscience can help with sorting out how the value system works (it is like the forensic laboratory in recent crime mysteries). Researchers agree it all starts with dopamine. This hormone determines how the brain processes reward and hence what it values.

Read more: Why you should consider neuroscience when creating e-learning courses

Dopamine is found all over the brain but specifically two regions are important and used by neuroscientists to quantify value. One is the nucleus accumbens and the other is the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. They sound fancy but in layman’s terms they are the value determining system of the brain. Its initial function was to give people motivation to survive – run from wild animals, look for food and find shelter.

Today’s dopamine-generated decisions are a lot more complex yet still non-rational. In situations where people have to decide between two different things, dopamine makes the difference – it helps where rational analysis comes short.

Changing values

The general assumption about values is that they are formed in early childhood and they are hard (if not impossible) to change. This means organisations presume they need to look for people whose personal values align with the organisation rather than expect employees to shift their values to match those of the company.

To some extent this works but what happens when organizational values change? Should entire teams just be replaced because their profile no longer matches? You don’t have to be a world renowned detective to know the answer is “no”.

Although stable, values can be subject to change especially in the context of social comparison. People derive value from being good but also from being better than others. Studies of Olympic medal winners found that bronze winners are happier than silver as bronze compare themselves with the person who came in fourth and got no medal whereas silver medal winners compare themselves with the person who got gold.

Achieving that sense of purpose

Seeing how it’s all about perspective, managers should start leading with vision, values and mission. This means moving the focus away from the business’ monetary results and taking a look to what it can do for society in general and its employees in particular.

As Stephen Hawking pointed out (and I think we can all agree he was a pretty smart individual) “work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it”.

The old theory according to which people were generally lazy and needed to be negatively motivated has long been proved wrong. The practice of simply adding more money to the salary has also turned out to be ineffective.

Employees need purpose and this can only be made apparent if organizations take a good, hard look at what they are doing and come up with a pretty solid ‘why’. It has to be strong enough to be worth working for – just as in mysteries, the motive is strong enough to kill for.


HR professionals are not normally trained in neuroscience. However, in spite of not being familiar with terms such as “locus coeruleus” or “raphne nucleus”, they can read the translated findings of this fascinating field and apply them in their organizations.

Today’s smoking gun seems to be purpose. Figuring that out will point to the right people to hire and grow.