Motivation: Let your people see who benefits from their work
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Motivation: Let your people see who benefits from their work

Employees want their work to make a difference in the world. Unfortunately, research shows that most don’t feel that sense of higher purpose. The result: Their motivation to be great at their jobs isn’t as strong as it could be.

What can you do as a leader to create a sense of purpose? For answers to that question, let’s look at several research studies.

In one of these, researchers from the University of North Carolina wanted to see whether they could help fundraisers at the university stay more engaged – and, in the process, raise more money for scholarships.

Helping others

They divided the fund-raising team into three groups. Before hitting the phones, each group was asked to attend a meeting.

  • In the meeting for Group One — the control group — people were simply asked to complete a survey.
  • People in Group Two read two stories from former employees discussing how working in the fundraising department helped prepare them for a successful career.
  • People in Group Three also read two stories – this time written by students who’d received the scholarships. These students wrote about how the scholarship changed their lives and how grateful they were.

The researchers returned a month later to see how the three groups performed over time.

Group Two – those who read stories by former employees – didn’t do any better than the control group.

But the performance of Group Three – those who’d read the students’ stories – skyrocketed. The average amount of money each employee raised more than doubled, from $1,300 a week to over $3,000.

Consider what these findings mean for employee engagement: For these workers, focusing on what the job could do for them – great experience, more career opportunities – didn’t move the needle on engagement.  What motivated them was how their job helped other people.

Above and beyond

Another study observed custodians at a large hospital. While their official job description consisted solely of cleaning duties, the most motivated custodians didn’t see it that way. They saw their role as helping people. They went out of their way to assist nurses, cheer up patients, and help visitors find their way around. In short, these motivated workers had found a larger purpose to their work. So they regularly went above and beyond – even though they didn’t have to.

Any work worth doing benefits someone. That someone may be a co-worker, a customer, a third party such as your customer’s customers, or members of the public. If you want to boost engagement among your people, consider doing what the researchers did in the fund-raising study: draw a clear line of sight between the people who do the work and those who benefit from it.

In fact, a study from Harvard Business School suggests that a literal line of sight can have a powerful impact on business results. The study, which took place in a restaurant, found that when cooks could see their diners, performance improved and customer satisfaction went up 10%. And when cooks and customers could see each other, customer satisfaction went up even higher – by 17%.

So how can you create a “line of sight” between your people and the people they help?

Face to face

The most powerful way: Arrange face-to-face meetings. One medical device company, for example, sets up regular meetings between patients and employees – including everyone from the factory floor to the front office. These meetings connect each worker with people whose lives have been saved because of their work.

Other forms of feedback can serve the same purpose. To demonstrate your workers’ impact on customers, for example, you might reach out to your sales or customer service department for testimonials. As the fundraising experiment shows, these testimonials can have a powerful effect on motivation.

And to make the feedback even more powerful, put faces to the names. A recent study at a major hospital showed that including patients’ headshots in their medical files boosted the accuracy of doctors’ diagnoses by nearly 50%.

If the benefits your organization provide are more broad based – for example, if your products help reduce pollution or improve safety – you might also look for third-party sources such as news reports or commentaries that show how your organization’s efforts help other people.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Employee Motivation: The Surprising Power of ‘Line of Sight.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research studies:

Grant, A. M. (2008). The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 108-124.

Wrzesniewski, A. and Dutton, J. E.  (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. The Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 179-201.

Buell, R. W., et al. (2015). Creating reciprocal value through operational transparency (Harvard Business School Working Paper No. 14-115).

Turner, Y., & Hadas-Halpern, I. (2008). The effects of including a patient’s photograph to the radiographic examination. Radiological Society of North America Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting. Oak Brook, Ill: Radiological Society of North America (Vol. 576).


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