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Give Employees a Purpose

Some jobs are just very difficult. Consider, for example, the plight of university fundraising callers whose job it is to convince alumni to donate money to fund things like scholarships. According to researcher Adam Grant,1 annual turnover rate for this job averages around 400%. The work is repetitive, has low autonomy, and has a very low success rate. It is not surprising that this environment engenders many extrinsic managerial interventions like pay increases, recognition, and more frequent breaks, but none of these have any impact on worker results (time spent on phone and dollars collected) or worker engagement.

Most managers, however, do not consider giving greater purpose to the work. In the plight of university call centers, Grant found the way to actually improve performance was by “imbuing the work with greater meaning and purpose.” The key was to connect the work to the customer or end user. When fundraising callers were able to meet for just five minutes a recipient of a scholarship that resulted from donations, they increased both their call volume and amount of collection by over 100% over those callers who were given no information about the end users. The treatment group could feel the need created by their work. They were given purpose.

Managers often default to a perspective that workers doing seemingly unappealing jobs can only be satisfied by extrinsic things focused on them. It has been found that such efforts are no more effective than simply assigning the work without any reason at all. Consider some other examples:

  • IT workers such as hardware or software support personnel. These jobs often come with customers (internal) who are only heard from when things go wrong. Connecting to those users and understanding their needs –- and understanding what that functioning equipment does for end users -- can bring more meaning to people swamped by the day-to-day problems.

  • Hotel housekeepers. The founder of a boutique hotel describes how one of his housekeepers finds meaning in her work of making other people’s beds—the satisfaction of making someone at home while they were away had great meaning to an immigrant women thousands of miles from her native Vietnam.

  • Phlebotomists who draw blood -- a repetitive task that is often unpleasant for those getting stuck with a needle. Researcher Teresa Amabile noticed how the woman taking her blood was cheery and excited. When asked why, the woman said it had to do with her understanding of what need that blood was serving -- either helping detect diseases that could be treated, or helping other people who needed the blood.2
Managers can help employees connect to end users in a number of ways. For example, a study found that radiologists, who interpret x-rays but don’t see the patients, increased the length of their reports (29%) and their accuracy (46%) when they saw pictures of their actual patients, compared to those that did not see the pictures. Also, managers can sow sentiments focused on customers by having workers share stories. At Ritz Carlton, for example, employees meet every day for about 15 minutes to share “wow” stories, where going the extra mile made a difference for specific customers.

What about "low-impact" work, where there is not as evident a purpose as delivering life-saving blood, or troubleshooting systems essential for a business to operate effectively? The manager can likely still connect to a higher purpose. Think of the hotel housekeepers or garbage collectors who ultimately keep places clean and safe from dangerous disease. Or of two men laying brick at a building site, where one sees himself doing the repetitive work of laying bricks but the other sees himself as building a beautiful cathedral. The manager can impact how people perceive their contributions by injecting a sense of greater purpose.

It is also important to engage employees by letting them use their knowledge and skills to take ownership. For example, at Whole Foods, employees doing mundane things like unpacking boxes are allowed to “educate shoppers about allergies, organic food quality standards, sustainable agriculture, and environmental preservation and recycling [and] some even teaching cooking classes.” The key here is to let workers at all levels use their knowledge and skills in ways that provide not only purpose, but also some autonomy.

Finally, don’t forget to give feedback on results. If you can get people to see a greater purpose for their work than merely making a paycheck or satisfying the boss (you), then they are more likely to engage in a way that lets them use their knowledge and skills to achieve better results. Let them learn from clear and timely feedback on their results -- they'll improve performance as needed to ultimately deliver even better for the end users whose needs are being met. But the first step in engaging employees might be to simply ask yourself: “What are the good reasons they -- and we -- are here?” If you are in charge, it is your job to establish that purpose.

1Adam Grant, “How customers can rally your troops” Harvard Business Review, The Magazine, June, 2011.

2Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer, ”What makes work worth doing?” HBR Blog Network/HBS Faculty, August 31, 2012.

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