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Increase workers’ positive perceptions of the impact of their work

01 Jun, 2020 Business management, Employee engagement, experience, satisfaction, Internal communication, Persuasion, influence, motivation

We all have a fundamental need to belong. One way to achieve this is to connect people’s work with outcomes. When people know their work has a meaningful, positive impact on others, they are happier and more productive than those who don’t make a connection.

How can a link best be established? Put a recipient or end user in front of a provider, and the beneficial change will happen, ie enable a worker to see the positive impact of their output on a customer or client. This applies internally within an organization, and externally as well. Connect what colleagues do at the individual task level to the positive external impact of the work. For example, showcase to your employees the feedback your organization receives to highlight how excellent service from your shop-floor and frontline workers is translating to great customer reviews, repeat business and word-of-mouth recommendations, advises behavioral scientist, Lindsay Kohler.

Just being aware of the impact your job has on others can help with motivation. Task significance is a key driver.

Photo (right): Prof. Adam Grant

Studies by Professor Adam Grant from the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania found even minor face-to-face contact can reinforce that significance. He conducted studies among engineers, salespeople, managers, customer service representatives, doctors, nurses, medical technicians, security guards, police officers and life guards and fire fighters, and found the same broad results.

Some examples:

  1. In a 2007 study, a group of call center workers whose job was to raise funds for a university, interacted with a group of scholarship students who received funding generated by those workers. A 5-minute, face-to-face chat between the two groups gave the workers an opportunity to discuss the students’ studies with them. The result: the workers who had met the funding recipients raised twice as much money as a group who didn’t. Even the minimal, brief contact with beneficiaries can enable employees to enhance their motivation.
  2. Employees at a career guidance center were motivated to help people more after they met face-to-face with the individuals who they were helping to write job application letters and documentation.
  3. When restaurant customers and cooks both could see one another, satisfaction went up 17%, and service was 13% faster. Transparency between customers and providers seems to really improve service – iPads were used to set up a video conference between the dining area and the kitchen. There was no sound and no interaction, but people on both sides could see each other. “There’s something refreshingly human about the idea that just seeing each other can make us more appreciative and lead to objectively better outcomes,” according to the researchers in this 2014 study.
  4. Facebook flies in users from around the country to meet with engineers and share how the site has reconnected them to family and friends.
  5. At a Merrill Lynch branch, weekly team meetings begin with stories about how the team has made a difference in customers’ lives.
  6. At Wells Fargo, for instance, managers show bankers videos of people describing how low-interest loans rescued them from severe debt—a vivid reminder to the bankers that they are striving to serve their customers, not their managers.
  7. One of our friends is a highly successful panel beater. When a customer phones to ask how the work on their car is progressing, they can be connected to a live video view of their car being worked on.

End users more credible than organizational leaders

Prof. Grant says in another article:

But the power of end users goes beyond their ability to put a name and a face to employees’ efforts. Organizational psychologist David Hofmann and I have found that employees generally see end users as more credible than leaders as sources of inspiration. When leaders attempt to deliver inspiring messages, many employees react with skepticism, questioning whether leaders are just trying to get them to work harder. Indeed, researchers Phil Mirvis and Donald Kanter have found that in many companies, the majority of frontline employees are cynical about leaders’ motives and intentions. End users, however, can deliver convincing testimonials of their experiences with the company’s products and services, showing that leaders’ messages are more than rhetoric. Outsourcing inspiration to end users can also keep the content fresh: Leaders can call on multiple customers to deliver distinct messages.

We all have end-users or customers for our work

But what if people work in technology industries and don’t have much contact with outsiders? Obviously that is more difficult. But this can be overcome.

An example: a pharmaceutical firm prepares mail-order prescriptions established a system where staff pharmacists rotate periodically into regular pharmacies where they interact with customers. They also began attaching photos of customers to their mail order files to humanize the names on the medical forms and help to minimize processing mistakes.

Even when employees don’t have a direct end user for their outputs, Grant notes they can use corporate philanthropy or corporate social responsibility activities as a substitute. “One option is to give people the chance to take responsibility for personally meaningful, important community service that can be sponsored by the company so they feel they make a difference to the recipients.”

Internal customers as well

Prof. Grant says, “Everybody has an end user.” In some cases, the end users are internal – internal ‘customers’ – and so the individual can connect with their ‘customers’ on a regular basis. For instance, how could an assembly-line worker installing screws in a car’s electrical system gain this kind of satisfaction? The worker’s impact on the future driver of the car is distant and abstract — and just one aspect the driver’s overall experience with the car. Managers can motivate such workers by leveraging internal relationships.

In one field study reported by Harvard’s Francesca Gino in 2017, some employees harvesting tomatoes at a tomato-processing company in California were asked to watch a short video from a work colleague telling them about the positive impact they had made in the factory. In the weeks after this, these employees achieved an average 7% improvement in productivity compared with other workers, as measured by tons of tomatoes harvested per hour. In a follow-up laboratory study, a similar initiative increased employees’ performance, because people felt a greater sense of belonging.

What communicators can do

There are powerful communication opportunities in these types of activities. We can participate in this process by helping to humanize the contact between workers and recipients. We can communicate about it beforehand, and can highlight many case studies from the workers’ point of view and the recipients’ point of view. In this era of COVID-19, when it is even more vital to create empathy for workers and customers, most of these initiatives can be communicated through various channels to strengthen the positive links between workers and end users. Avenues to do this can include the corporate intranet and website, internal and external newsletters, corporate blogs and many human interest publicity opportunities in local and regional media (assuming the recipients are happy for their story to be told widely), and social media as well. Appropriate staff events and presentations could also be held.

Prof. Grant offers further suggestions for finding end users to inspire workers. These all have a strong communication core:

  1. Identify past, present, and future end-users.To connect with the broadest possible range of end users, ask leaders, managers, and employees around the organization to identify various groups of clients, customers, suppliers, patients, and other recipients who have benefited, currently benefit, or could benefit from the work that employees do.
  2. Obtain feedback from past end-users. Many organizations regularly collect useful information from focus groups and customer surveys that ends up trapped in silos or viewed strictly as market research. This kind of feedback, no matter how old, can provide powerful examples of a company’s impact on end users. 
  3. Seek out new stories. When employees lack a strong sense of impact, appreciation, and empathy, or when a particular group of end users is invisible, managers and employees can go into the field to contact end users. Ensure these efforts are genuine. Leaders who want to help employees see that the actual and potential consequences of their work are likely to inspire their employees. Those who attempt to connect with end users just for a performance boost, risk fostering cynicism and skepticism among the workforce.
  4. Set up events and meetings where end users can share their experiences. Although stories and letters can be motivating, a face-to-face connection with end users has a stronger emotional impact on employees. These sessions are most inspiring when they include end users whom employees do not normally see. 
  5. Turn employees into end-users. Employees who have little experience with the company’s products or services often contribute more after they spend some time in ‘customers’ shoes.’ This can be done in various ways.
  6. Find end-users inside the organization. Internal end users—such as a customer-facing team audited by backroom accountants or investment bankers who give client presentations prepared by junior consultants and analysts—are prime sources of feedback. Connecting with internal customers can be a powerful step toward reducing misconceptions and conflict between groups and departments.
  7. Engage employees who currently do low-impact work. Finding ways to connect end users to employees who seem to deliver few direct, lasting benefits may need some more creativity. One way is to leverage their unique knowledge and expertise by allowing them to connect to customers directly, such as in a help line. Of course, it is important to make sure these employees have the knowledge, skills, and time to take on new responsibilities as they connect with customers. And they need sufficient verbal and written skills to respond to customer contact.
  8. When you can’t find end-users. Connections between employees and end users are most powerful when they are face-to-face. How can leaders build those connections when they lack access to end users or can’t find any with inspiring stories? Research suggests three options:
    1. Show pictures. A photo of an end user can be powerfully motivating. People are more likely to empathize with end users who appear sad and neutral, and therefore may be signaling an unfulfilled need.
    2. Circulate employees’ stories. The simple act of sharing a story about benefiting others can reinforce one’s conviction about the purpose of a job.
    3. Share external stories. Employees such as bank examiners, airline pilots, and nuclear power plant workers do jobs that are designed to protect people, but they rarely see the impact of their work. Stories from outsiders can help.

You can also crowdsource this search for purpose and impact by giving employees a chance to uncover this meaning for themselves. For instance, Lindsay Kohler says “one client started a ‘Reasons to be Proud’ campaign, which is motivating their people by spotlighting the impact of their work on their local communities.”

These ways of providing inspiration are a low-cost, win:win:win situation. Employees gain more satisfaction and interest in their job, the employer gets more productivity, and the recipients get more support from the process. “There’s something refreshingly human about the idea that just seeing each other can make us more appreciative and lead to objectively better outcomes,” say researchers.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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