HR
May 7, 2012

Purposeful work key to employee motivation

A widely held notion, humorously illustrated in the film Jerry Maguire through the phrase “Show me the money!” is that financial incentives motivate our behaviour. However, both social science and behavioural economic research consistently refute this idea. 

In his latest book, Drive, best-selling author Dan Pink reviews over fifty years of research to show that “carrots and sticks” are ineffective motivational tools. And the futility of incentive-based systems has been documented throughout the world. Closer to home a recent study sponsored by Workopolis found that financial rewards were at the bottom of the list of primary job motivators for Canadians.

If money and tangible benefits are not the key, an important next step is to determine how engagement can be cultivated. Organizational psychologist Wayne Cascio has reported that for the past three decades meaningful work has been identified as the single most important feature employees look for in a position.

Adam Grant of the Wharton School of Business noted in a recent article in Harvard Business Review that “many people describe helping others and contributing to society as their driving purpose at work.” This concept was illustrated in one of his studies that explored the enhancement of meaning within a call centre environment responsible for soliciting donations from alumni to support a university scholarship program for incoming students. 

Turnover within this call centre was over 400 percent and performance was lagging. Dr. Grant was brought in to investigate ways to increase employee engagement and retention. He randomly assigned employees to one of three intervention groups: Personal Benefit, Task Significance, and Control. The Personal Benefit group received a letter describing the positive impacts the job brought to their own lives (e.g., salary, benefits, etc.). The Task Significance group received a letter written by one of the scholarship recipients. The letter writer outlined the immeasurable positive impacts that receiving the scholarship had on his life. The Control Group did not receive anything.

Grant then compared the performance of the different groups both before and after the commencement of the intervention. His results were nothing less than striking. While employees in the Personal Benefit and Control groups showed no differences, the people in the Task Significance Group experienced a 250 percent improvement in performance. By simply highlighting how their work benefitted others, employee motivation and performance were significantly enhanced.

This research could have important implications for the federal public service from a strategic HR perspective. Working for the government is about servicing the needs of Canadians as well as contributing to the country’s success in social, economic and international affairs. This provides the government with unique and abundant opportunities to directly connect its employees to its overarching mission. 

In his article, Grant outlined one of the most powerful ways to build purposeful work. By connecting employees with the end users of their service, what he termed “outsourcing inspiration,” workers have an opportunity to see how their jobs truly matter. 

Imagine if HR executives worked with executives and managers to get all levels of their organizations thinking about collecting and sharing “success stories” to motivate everyone in their departments. Even more exciting, Grant’s research has shown that having face-to-face meetings with clients (internal or external) has yielded performance improvements of up to 500 percent.

Obviously, this kind of action is not applicable for every situation. For those employees who are engaged in low-impact work, Grant proposes that opportunities could be created to allow them to provide input into how the services of the organization are currently offered. This taps into the fundamental human need to “make a difference” and allows these individuals to take another perspective on their work.

Human resources are the foundation of the federal public service. In the midst of change and uncertainty, HR executives can develop strategic plans for maintaining and nurturing a highly competent and stable workforce by taking advantage of a growing scientific database of effective employee engagement practices. Evidence-based strategies, such as those listed above, are a strong starting point for HR executives and management as they work to further develop and foster their strategic HR services and help to ensure that the public service upholds its mandate to those it serves. 

Answering the question, “how can I stimulate a sense of meaning and purpose within my work environment?” may indeed be the critical contributor to the future success of the public service.

 

Craig Dowden (Ph.D.) is the managing director of the Ottawa branch of Andre Filion & Associates, an industrial psychology and career management firm. He was recognized as one of Ottawa’s Forty Under 40 business leaders in 2009.

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