To Motivate Employees, Show Them How They’re Helping Customers/in HBR


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Francesca Gino/Mar 6, 2017

Think back to your first day on the job. If you’re like most people, you felt excited and were eager to get down to work. But, based on the results of field research I recently conducted, I am willing to guess that just a few months later that excitement dissipated and you began to feel dissatisfaction, even boredom, with some aspects of your job. You’ve probably witnessed a similar trend among the employees you’ve hired and managed as well.

Hundreds of studies in management and psychology have examined how organizations can increase worker motivation. Most theories, grounded in the job design literature, argue for redesigning or recrafting jobs — for example, by adding variety or increasing autonomy to people’s work. As I discussed in another post, Brad Staats of the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill and I demonstrated the success of these approaches by analyzing 2 ½ years of transaction data from a unit at a Japanese bank that processes applications for home loans. Mortgage processing involved 17 distinct tasks, including scanning applications, inputting application data, and doing a credit check. We found that adding variety to the tasks workers completed from day to day (by having them working on different distinct tasks rather than focusing on the same one) improved their motivation and productivity. These workers helped the bank process loan applications more quickly, managers told us, and improved the bank’s ability to secure new customers.

More recent research points to another key factor in increasing worker motivation: leveraging the social aspect of work. In particular, interactions with the beneficiaries of one’s work can be highly motivating because they heighten workers’ perceptions of the impact of their work.

In one field study, Adam Grant of the Wharton School found that fundraisers who were attempting to secure scholarship donations felt more motivated when they had contact with scholarship recipients. In another study, Grant found that lifeguards were more vigilant after reading stories about people whose lives have been saved by lifeguards. In fact, the words of beneficiaries of one’s assistance can be more motivating than those of inspirational leaders, Grant showed in another series of studies with his colleague Dave Hofmann of the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill. Similarly, when cooks see those who will be eating their food, they feel more motivated and work harder, Harvard Business School’s Ryan Buell and colleagues found.

Across these studies, the key factor that improved worker motivation was a direct connection to those who benefit from one’s work, including customers and clients. But this type of direct relationship can be hard to achieve in some jobs. Consider an assembly-line worker installing screws in a car’s electrical system. Clearly, the screws are vital, but the worker’s distinct impact on the future driver of the car is distant and abstract — and just one aspect the driver’s overall experience with the car.

How can managers motivate such workers? By leveraging relationships that are internal to the organization. In one field study, Paul Green of Harvard Business School, Brad Staats, and I asked employees harvesting tomatoes at a tomato-processing company in California to watch a short video from a colleague within the firm telling them about the positive impact they had in the factory. Others did not watch such videos (our control condition). In the weeks after the intervention, the employees who watched a video from a colleague achieved a 7% improvement in productivity, on average, as measured by tons of tomatoes harvested per hour, relative to those in our control condition. In a follow-up laboratory study, a similar intervention increased employees’ performance, because people felt a greater sense of belonging.

Both at work and away from work, all of us seek to fulfill a fundamental human need to belong. In our studies, positive words from internal beneficiaries of employees’ work — their colleagues — served as an important source of motivation by strengthening the workers’ sense of belongingness.

The existing research on motivation tells a clear story: There are both psychological and performance benefits to connecting employees to the beneficiaries of their work. As a manager, you just need to ask a simple question: What opportunities are there in your organization to create such connections? The answer may not be difficult to find and implement.

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