Putting a Face to a Name: The Art of Motivating EmployeesPublished: July 06, 2010
Could a simple five-minute interaction with another person dramatically increase your weekly productivity?
In some employment environments, the answer is yes, according to Wharton management professor Adam Grant. Grant has devoted significant chunks of his professional career to examining what motivates workers in settings that range from call centers and mail-order pharmacies to swimming pool lifeguard squads. In all these situations, Grant says, employees who know how their work has a meaningful, positive impact on others are not just happier than those who don't; they are vastly more productive, too.
That conclusion may sound touchy-feely, but Grant has documented it in a series of research papers. In one experiment, he studied paid employees at a public university's call center who were asked to phone potential donors to the school. It can be grim work: Employees don't get paid much and suffer frequent rejections from people unhappy about getting calls during dinner. Turnover is high and morale is often low. So how do you motivate workers to stay on the phone and bring in the donations?
One relatively easy answer: Introduce them to someone who is aided by those dollars.
In his 2007 study, Grant and a team of researchers -- Elizabeth Campbell, Grace Chen, David Lapedis and Keenan Cottone from the University of Michigan -- arranged for one group of call center workers to interact with scholarship students who were the recipients of the school's fundraising largess. It wasn't a long meeting -- just a five-minute session where the workers were able to ask the student about his or her studies. But over the next month, that little chat made a big difference. The call center was able to monitor both the amount of time its employees spent on the phone and the amount of donation dollars they brought in. A month later, callers who had interacted with the scholarship student spent more than two times as many minutes on the phone, and brought in vastly more money: a weekly average of $503.22, up from $185.94.
"Even minimal, brief contact with beneficiaries can enable employees to maintain their motivation," the researchers write in their paper, titled "Impact and the Art of Motivation Maintenance: The Effects of Contact with Beneficiaries on Persistence Behavior," published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
Seeing Is Believing
Beyond awareness of job impact, face-to-face meetings with individuals who benefit from a job well done can dramatically improve workers' performance. In Grant's 2007 study, a second experiment looked at a group of students who were tasked with editing cover letters of fellow students who had contacted the university's Career Center in order to help find a job. One group of the student editors had the opportunity to see a would-be beneficiary who stopped by to drop off his letters and made small talk, purportedly unaware that the people in the room were the ones who would be tuning up his writing. Another group of student editors dug into the identical cover letters without having laid eyes on their author. The result? The people who had met the job-seeking student -- even for a brief, apparently superficial conversation as he dropped off his paperwork -- spent significantly more time on the editing task than those who hadn't.
However, there is more to know about contact than the simple idea that it is worthwhile to plunk workers down next to someone their daily tasks have aided. In a second run of the Career Center experiment, for instance, the alleged student job seeker's biographical information was also manipulated. Again, both groups of editors worked on identical packets of cover letters. But they also saw a personal information sheet the student had submitted to the Career Center. On one sheet, the student wrote that he desperately needed a job, saying he was having a hard time paying bills. For the other group, the personal statement did not contain any such language. Again, one group of editors met the student for the same few minutes of small talk, and another group had no contact with him.
Reading the high-need personal statement -- that is, learning that their work was very important -- was crucial. But, the one-two punch of knowing the beneficiary's needs and meeting him in person generated the largest impact on motivation. Editors who didn't learn of the student's dire financial straits put in an average of 27 minutes of work. Editors who read of the student's money woes but never met him clocked 26 minutes apiece. Only those who had met the student and read of his worries worked significantly harder on the task of helping him,spending more than a half-hour on the task, or an average of 20% more time than the other editors.
Grant says this suggests that "task significance" is the key driver, and that face-to-face interactions, even seemingly superficial ones, can serve as a way of driving that significance home. In other studies, he has found that engineers, salespeople, managers, customer service representatives, doctors, nurses, medical technicians, security guards, police officers and firefighters who can directly see their impact on others all achieve higher job performance.
Over the course of several years' worth of experiments and surveys, Grant and his colleagues have spotted a few other nuances in how meeting beneficiaries affects workers. For instance, workers with a strong set of "prosocial values" -- determined by those who say they agree strongly with statements such as, "It is important to me to respond to the needs of others" -- are much more likely to be affected by reminders of how significant their work is. By contrast, generally conscientious workers, who presumably work hard whether or not their labors are beneficial, don't show nearly the same spike in performance upon being exposed to their beneficiaries.
Even in firms that are not focused on helping people as a core mission, managers might still look at increasing contact between workers and others in the organization who benefit from their labor, Grant says. "Everybody has an end user.
In some cases, those end users are more inside the organization than outside. In some cases, the end users who managers want employees to focus on are coworkers, colleagues in other departments, or managers themselves." The question, he says, is: "How do we establish that connection as a regular routine, whether it's a weekly conference call with [co-workers] or a monthly check-in?"