How to motivate people? Don’t do it yourself.

How do you motivate employees to greater levels of engagement and productivity? Maybe you shouldn’t try to do it yourself.

For many people, the popular TV show The Office strikes just a little too close to the reality of their day-to-day experience. It is funny because it is true. Consider this example: manager Michael Scott often gives “motivational” pep talks to his team. Just about every time, the effort backfires. Michael’s efforts to pump up his colleagues are greeted with rolled eyes and cynicism. Whether sincere or not, his words and deeds are viewed as inauthentic and superficial. By contrast: seldom if ever do we actually see or hear from fictional company Dunder Mifflin’s customers in the show.

There are specific, research-based steps toward an alternative possibility: a world of engaged workers who are happier, healthier, and more productive. Employees are more likely to be motivated and engaged when they feel their work is meaningful (which researchers Brent Rosso, Katherine Dekas, and Amy Wrzesniewski define as “significant, challenging, and complete”). It seems logical: people who feel that their work is “making a difference” are more likely to engage in it. Usually, when we think of “meaningful work,” we think of teachers, nurses, physicians, social workers: people whose jobs directly impact the lives of others. However, many employees in other kinds of roles are doing work that indirectly impacts the lives of others but are unable to see the effects of their work. These employees may hear about how their work affects others, but are otherwise unaware of their impact and therefore remain unmotivated and unengaged.

Take telefund callers, for instance. Many of us receive calls regularly from our alma maters, asking for donations. These calls are often placed by young students, paying their way through school by making fundraising calls to alumni. The work is repetitive, and the callers have to stay motivated and persistent even in the face of frequent (and not always very polite) rejection. Not necessarily a job that comes to mind when we think “meaningful work.” However, in How To Be A Positive Leader, Adam Grant shares a study of how outsourcing inspiration contributed to a more engaged workplace.

In 2007, University of Michigan Telefund experimented with inviting a scholarship recipient to help motivate its employees. Telefund callers are often students without much work experience, and face frequent rejection as they try to raise money for the university. In the experiment (since widely replicated), a scholarship recipient shared her story with some of the callers before their phone shift—how her scholarship helped ease a financial burden. In the month after hearing her story, those callers obtained on average 215 more pledges and $1670 more in donations per week than a control group that didn’t receive a motivational talk from a scholarship student. The kicker? Both groups of callers used the exact same script.

Outsourcing inspiration can and will look different in each organization. Here are three helpful strategies from Grant’s study that organizations can use to get started:

1. Make the face-to-face connection. Hearing first-hand from the beneficiaries of their work is the most direct (and most effective) way to connect employees to the impact of their work. In the case of Michigan Telefund, a 5-minute story from a scholarship student measurably boosted employee engagement.

2. Encourage employees to swap stories. It might be the case at an organization that some employees are very connected to their impact, while others are not. When employees are given the opportunity to share their contributions with each other, they can make connections about impact that they may not have been able to make otherwise.

3. Become a linking pin. What good is an inspiring story if not connected to the mission of the organization? Connecting employees’ contributions with the mission or vision of the organization can be even more engaging for employees than simply hearing the story of an end-user.

With these ideas as a starting point, you can start outsourcing inspiration quickly. Today at lunch, encourage employees to share stories of contributions they’ve made toward your mission. Reach out to one of your team’s beneficiaries to see if they would be willing to share the impact your organization had on them. Make your mission known and connect it to the day-to-day work of your employees. Perhaps an added bonus will be a boost to your own motivation, as well as that of your team!

 

Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com) is managing director of theCenter for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’sStephen M. Ross School of Business. The Center is the convener of the Positive Organizations Consortium, a catalytic co-learning community of leaders actively building high-performing organizations where people thrive.