Many managers and business leaders struggle with improving workforce engagement and motivation. This is especially true when it comes to sustaining creativity, performance and problem-solving — despite the boost these factors can give an organization seeking a competitive advantage in our knowledge economy.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, recent social science research suggests traditional incentives — such as goals set by managers or rewards in the form of monetary bonuses — actually dull employee creativity and problem-solving, and are not effective motivators alone for newer 21st century tasks often associated with knowledge work.

Career author Daniel Pink, whose 2009 TED Global-London presentation about the “Puzzle of Motivation” (captured on YouTube), suggests individuals engaged in knowledge work are more motivated when they are given more autonomy, mastery and purpose, instead of assigned goals and rewards. Social enterprises — organizations that borrow and adapt the logic of the private sector to address issues that have traditionally been beyond its scope — excel at achieving higher levels of workforce engagement and motivation, and can provide valuable insights for improving business productivity and competitiveness.

Allowing individuals to find personal meaning and purpose in the work they do, especially in tasks that require them to think outside the box, can be a winning strategy.

For example, take Action Alexandria, an online platform for community change that connects neighbors and local organizations to share ideas, create action and make an impact. Since starting two years ago, Action Alexandria has already made a measurable impact on the community, in part because it enables volunteers and collaborators to find personal meaning in supporting their community. The organization has raised more than $559,654 in community investment (counting playground grants and online fundraising); engaged 2,542 community members; collected 3,920 donated items for Alexandria nonprofits (medicine, books, food, diapers, etc.); and mobilized people to support local nonprofits, submit new ideas and cast more than 6,000 votes during community idea challenges.

Similarly, Empowered Women International is an organization that has seen noteworthy achievements, thanks to the motivation and engagement of its volunteers. The nonprofit, established in 2002 with offices in Alexandria and Rockville, provides a three-month intensive Entrepreneur Training for Success course, along with ongoing business coaching, networking and support services to train hundreds of disadvantaged women to start new jobs and small businesses. The successes of the ETS program help move the needle for the economy, as 58 percent of participants saw their production increase, 49 percent boosted their personal incomes and 34 percent had plans to hire additional employees. They were also inspired to give back, with 90 percent volunteering with a local organization and 83 percent donating to charitable organizations.

Underpinning the success of these local social enterprises doing good are highly engaged and motivated workforces designed deliberately for the purpose of sustaining creativity and innovation to make a difference in people’s lives.

One way leaders can think like social enterprises and inspire and motivate employees with a greater sense of purpose is by telling stories about how the organization’s service or product made an impact for clients or communities, and how employees can make similar contributions. Employees often connect with stories, they take pride in them and they share them with others. This often goes hand-in-hand with an organization’s ability to report results of workforce engagement and satisfaction using indicators and data that show effectiveness or outcomes, such as improvement in local decision-making, organizational culture and workforce knowledge sharing.

In today’s knowledge economy fueled by out-of-the- box thinking and innovation, a highly engaged and motivated workforce is becoming a necessary ingredient to improve business productivity and competitiveness. For those who seek to improve business performance and productivity, local social enterprises might have as much to teach us about the importance of motivation and engagement as doing good.

Drew Bewick is a social entrepreneur-in-residence at the Center for Social Value Creation at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. As managing director of Tree House Ventures LLC, Bewick has served as an adviser to multiple companies and nonprofit organizations, assisting innovators start successful ventures by discovering opportunities and using entrepreneurial principles to organize, start and manage a successful venture to make an impact.