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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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