Motivating employees is a key leadership attribute. Hence, when morale is flagging, leaders take to the podium to deliver an inspiring speech and hope for the best. The question one may ask is ‘Is this effective? Are there better ways of inspiring staff?’
An article by Professor Adam Grant(*) suggests that it is often more effective for the leaders to ‘outsource inspiration’ to those people, who benefit from the organisations products and services – the end users. This recognises the power of leaders’ actions to speak louder than their words. By relating to end users, leaders help bring more meaning to the work and employees understand their contributions.
Why Outsource Inspiration?
Meaningful work is the key to satisfaction at work. In the book “The Progress Principle”, authors found that the single most important factor in an employee’s drive to do a great job is doing ‘meaningful work’. When work has meaning, it matters. It helps lift employee satisfaction and morale. But often while employees do work that makes a difference, they have no chance to meet or hear from people affected by their work. Like a sign in a call centre says: “Doing a good job here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit. You get a warm feeling, but no one else notices.”
Adam Grant describes an experiment his team conducted in a university call centre raising funds. At the beginning of a shift the team leader described how the funds raised helped new buildings, facilities and scholarships. There was no effect. The team did not work any harder nor raised any more funds. Then they invited a scholarship recipient. For five minutes he talked to a group of callers, explaining how their work helped fund his education. It had changed his life and he wanted to thank them for their efforts. Another group of callers were just given a letter from the student. The face-to-face group spent 142% time on phone and raised 171% revenue, while the callers who read the letter showed no change. A five-minute interaction with a single recipient created a dramatic effect in effort and productivity.
Similar results were achieved in a wide range of health and safety jobs such as nurses, radiologists, lifeguards and pharmacy employees. Studies found that “employees reported greater pride in the organization, a stronger sense of commitment and willingness to go beyond the requirements of the job, and a heightened belief in the meaningfulness of the organization’s vision in their daily jobs” after receiving feedback from consumers. Even employees doing more mundane jobs benefited from feedback from the benefit receivers.
Understanding Your Own Impact
Since receiving feedback has such a profound impact on motivation, what can one do to understand this impact? There are four different ways leaders can connect what they do on the job and its impact on others.
- Regularly visit the end users – Often leaders have little of no contact with end users or even frontline workers. This is especially true in back office functions like technology. Work pressures and busy diaries make it difficult to go out and meet clients and customers. Making such visits a priority can help leaders better understand customer needs and their own contributions. At IBM, Lou Gerstner required 50 of his top executives to visit at least five of IBMs largest customers in a three-month period. A connection with the real world customers helped leaders understand whether their decisions helped or hindered the customers.
- Seek internal feedback – A lot of the leader’s work impacts people inside the organisation. But many leaders lack the awareness of how their work impacts lives of their employees. A simple and effective solution is meet each of your employees at least twice a month. This will increase trust and allow employees to communicate the impact of your relationship.
- Keep a contribution journal – It is easy to lose sight of how your actions make a difference. One small step is to keep a journal about how you made a difference. In an experiment with call centre workers, Grant found that just writing about contributions for an hour each week helped improve productivity by 29%. The journaling process undertaken by employees reinforced the sense that their job mattered, increased self-esteem and energised them to work even harder.
- Become a customer – By becoming a customer or end user yourself can give insights into the impact of your work. Using your organisation’s products and services can shed more light on how your job matters. At the Four Seasons hotel, new employees are invited to stay overnight in their own hotels. Interaction with our own organisation’s offerings can result into more insights into the impact of our work.
Helping Employees Understand Their Impact
As a leader it is not enough to understand your own impact. You can help employees understand how their work makes a difference. Leaders in innovative organisations have implemented three strategies for this purpose.
- Face-to-face connection – The best way to do this is to invite end users to visit the organisation. In technology, I have asked Product Managers and other business leaders to share their experiences, to great effect. As leaders talk about their products’ successes or their challenges dealing with technology, technology team gained valuable insights and saw how their efforts mattered to others in the business.
- Encourage employees to share stories – When it is not easy to arrange face-to-face contact, employees can share their own stories of making a difference. For example, at Merrill Lynch, the team starts their weekly meetings by employees talking about how they made a difference to a client. After hearing stories of impact from their colleagues, employees become more aware of the importance of their contributions and are motivated make greater future contributions.
- Become a linking pin – As a leader, you can be the link between the end users and employees. You can use your network and contacts to find clients, customers and other beneficiaries of your organisation’s products and services, who have interesting stories to share. When you articulate your vision, inviting end users to share experiences can bring the vision to life.
At a time when work outsourcing has become common, outsourcing inspiration is not that common. Surprisingly, few leaders understand its potential to make a positive impact on the organisation. Very few take the effort to link day to day work to meaningful and lasting benefits to other people. By making these connections, it is possible to enrich the working environment with deeper meaning and greater productivity.
* – Based on article by Adam Grant, “outsourcing Inspiration” in the book “How to be a positive leader” by Jane E. Dutton and G.M. Spreitzer