A Low-Cost Way to Improve Performance

How do you motivate employees when your cash cow is low on milk—when there is no longer room in the budget for the usual financial incentives like pay raises and bonuses? The answer is simple: Make work meaningful. Build on your people's natural desire to see how their work fits in with the grand scheme of things. All workers want to feel that what they do matters to other people, that their day-to-day tasks are somehow indispensable. To make that connection clearer for their people, companies like Medtronic (MDT) have for years invited customers to give testimonials at their annual meetings. Qualcomm (QCOM) collects and shares stories with employees about how cell phones have saved people's lives in emergency situations. The Volvo Saved My Life Club lets customers and employees alike share stories of how Volvo's safety features kept them safe in potentially fatal car crashes. DaVita (DVA) routinely shows its employees video segments in which patients and family members express appreciation for their kidney dialysis work. The message these practices send to people inside the company—from the shop floor to the C-suites—is that "without your work, the world would be a worse place." It's more powerful than a pat on the back from a manager. It's like a pat on the back from the universe. Now that's all well and good in a New Age, touchy-feely sort of way. But amid all of the turmoil businesses are facing right now, should efforts to make work more meaningful really be a priority? After all, nobody is going to feel good about work if the company has to close its doors. Bottom-Line ImpactAccording to research by Adam Grant, an associate professor of management at the Wharton School, making this connection doesn't just improve morale. It also has a huge impact on the bottom line. Grant has discovered that when people get to meet a living, breathing person who benefits from their work, their job performance skyrockets. In one study, Grant found that university fund-raisers who listened to a scholarship recipient tell how the assistance had benefited him increased by 200% the number of weekly calls they made to potential donors. The average amount of funds they brought in jumped 500%, from $400 per week to more than $2,000 per week. That's an impressive increase in performance by any standard. It's especially so when you consider what did not happen to create the surge in productivity. The callers were not offered a raise. They did not go through extra training to sharpen their interpersonal skills or persuasion techniques. Their managers did not receive extra training on how to be more charismatic or transformational. It required no internal branding effort to communicate a newer, more inspiring vision. The only expense incurred by the organization—time or money—for this dramatic increase in productivity was the 10 minutes of time that fund-raisers spent listening to the beneficiary of their work. Grant has found the same kinds of performance increases in sales reps, firefighters, police officers, lifeguards, and MBA students. In his opinion, it should come as no surprise that making work more meaningful should motivate significantly higher performance. What does surprise him is how slowly most managers are responding to this motivational opportunity. "In national surveys over the past three decades, meaningful work has swamped all other job attributes as the No. 1 feature that Americans value in a job, yet so many managers spend very little time thinking about how to make work more meaningful," he says. Is it any wonder why it affects bottom-line performance? On the flip side, research shows that employees who fail to link what they do to the benefit it provides others are much more likely to slack off. The moral of the story is that meaning matters. Improved Quality of WorkIntroducing managers and employees to the beneficiary of their work taps into a slightly different and perhaps even deeper human need to believe that what we do is important—that rolling ourselves out of bed every morning serves some greater purpose. Making that connection doesn't just motivate people to do more work. New evidence also indicates that it improves the quality of work. For example, when radiologists see a patient photo before viewing that patient's X-ray, they actually make more-accurate diagnoses. A large body of research in social psychology is now showing that the basic desire for meaning grows under threatening conditions created by times of war, natural disaster, and economic uncertainty. Times just like right now. So why not help your people use their jobs to satisfy that hunger for meaning, and create a substantial performance increase in the process? I believe that most managers truly care about the well-being of their employees over and above their contribution to profitability. Unfortunately, they often feel forced to make a choice between organizational performance and employee well-being. Helping employees to see their work as more meaningful is one of those rare instances in which employee well-being is not just compatible with, but also contributes to, the organization's financial growth. To start infusing a greater sense of meaning into your organization's work, Grant recommends these strategies: 1. Invite customers who have benefited from the company's products and services to come in and speak to employees about the impact those products and services have made in their lives. 2. Conduct surveys and focus groups about not how easy or fun your products or services are, but rather how to have a greater impact on the people who use them. Then communicate to your employees the specific role they can play in making this impact. 3. Collect stories directly from beneficiaries, and share them via town-hall meetings or on the company's intranet. 4. Structure group discussions about other beneficiaries who might value the work that employees do. 5. Provide recognition for employees who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help beneficiaries in meaningful ways. If you can increase the sense of meaning your employees feel, you should see a notable increase in performance and engagement. And who knows? You just might begin to find your own job as a manager that much more meaningful.

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