Motivating Employees with Meaning

Motivating employees can be a challenge!  Whether they receive a pay cheque or volunteer, it is important to help your team understand why what they do is important or meaningful.  This sense of meaning can go a long way to increasing productivity, improve employee/volunteer retention and loyalty.

Adam Grant, a Wharton management professor, demonstrates this with his research looking at call centers, mail order pharmacies and swimming pool lifeguards who have a strong sense of meaning in their work are more likely to be more productive and happier. He suggests just being aware of the impact one's job has on others can help increase job satisfaction, purpose, and motivation.

In a 2007 study, he focused on lifeguards at a community pool. Some of them were given stories to read concerning lifeguards who had saved lives. The second group was given testimonies from lifeguards about how they had personally benefited from their work. Interestingly, those who read about their ability to save lives saw their measure of hours worked shoot up by more than 40%!  Conversely, those who had merely learned that working as a lifeguard was personally enriching kept working at the same pace.1

While it is important that we help our employees and volunteers understand the personal benefits of a particular job or task, it is clear those who gain a big picture perspective of their contribution to the betterment of others are often more productive and content in their work.

Face to Face

In the same study, Grant studied students working at the university's Career Center editing cover letters for fellow lady16-© fotogestoeber - Fotolia.comstudents in order to help them find employment.  The first group had the opportunity to meet face to face those who would benefit from their work, and the second group did not meet the beneficiaries of their work. Interestingly, the editors who had opportunity to meet face to face with those they would be serving spent significantly more time editing the cover letters than those editors who did not meet the authors.

It is often helpful for our team to have some contact with the people they are providing a service to because it connects them to a real person and not another faceless task in the queue.  The connecting of a particular task or function to helping real live, “in the flesh” people adds a sense of significance.  Other studies have confirmed this in other professions such as engineers, salespeople, managers, customer service reps, health professionals, police officers, and firefighters, who can directly see their impact on others, all report higher job satisfaction and performance.

Motivating Employees Towards Significance

  • If you value people, your team and your clientele, chances are higher your team will also.
  • Meaningful Mission Statements should connect us to meaning.
  • Remind your team regularly in specific ways what they do makes a difference to others; clients, other employees, the environment, and the company.
  • Look for ways for your team to interact or connect with your customers in some way.  Pass on praise, thank you's and constructive criticism attached to at least a first name.  Share stories of how what they do makes a difference to real life of real people!


1- "The Significance of Task Significance: Job Performance Effects, Relational Mechanisms, and Boundary Conditions," Journal of Applied Psychology.

1 Response

  1. Build up progressively, don't undermine relentlessly... love it!

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