I introduced myself to someone in a client organisation the other day and asked him who he was. His response was, “I am just an operator”. For someone to see themselves as just an anything – a call centre agent, a supervisor, a mum, or even a CEO – is not only sad but has implications. A person who feels “just a …” is unlikely to be engaged, motivated or give of his/her best, no matter how much he/she is paid.
When people at work feel they are “just a …” this is a leadership problem. Leaders in essence have failed to provide two things which are vital for people’s motivation at work. Firstly, they have failed to provide people with an understanding of the importance or the value of what they do. Secondly, they have failed to show appreciation for what people have done.
The criticality of a sense of purpose or meaning in the work being done, and acknowledgement by others of the work, has been validated in social science experiments as well is in the workplace.
In an experiment, Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, USA, asked two groups to build characters from Lego’s Bionicles series. In both cases participants were paid decreasing amounts for each completed Bionicle – $3 for the first one, $2.70 for the next, and so on. But while the first group’s creations were stored under the table to be disassembled at the end of the experiment, the second group’s Bionicles were disassembled as soon as they had been built. They were literally destroyed in front of the builders’ eyes.
The first group made 13 on average while the second group stopped after only seven. It was clear that seeing the fruits of their labours, even for a short time, was enough to dramatically improve their performance.
Another example comes from Adam Grant, author of the book Give and Take. Students at a university call centre spent hours on the phone asking for donations from alumni, with limited success. After meeting face-to-face with one of the recipients of a donation, however, the callers were re-energised and, through their calls, increased donations received by five times.
What both examples illustrate is that what really motivates people at work is not the “get” of the job but the “give” of the job – that they are making a contribution.
In another study, Ariely gave participants a piece of paper filled with random letters and asked them to find pairs of identical letters. In each round they were offered less money than the previous round. People in the first group put their names on their sheets and handed it to the experimenter who looked it over and said “uh huh” before putting it on a pile. People in the second group did not put their names on their sheets and the experimenter put their sheets on a pile without looking at them. Participants in the third group had their work shredded immediately on completion.
Participants whose work was shredded needed twice as much money to keep doing the task as those whose work was acknowledged. People whose work was saved, but ignored, needed almost as much money as those whose work was shredded.
If leaders really want to take away people’s motivation at work it is easy to do. All that is required is to ignore or fail to acknowledge their contribution. A miner on a South African platinum mine put it beautifully. Although he was earning a good bonus as a result of the high platinum price (at the time) he was unhappy at work because, as he put it, “thank you is very much expensive around here”.
If failure to thank people has a negative impact on motivation, what about its opposite?
Adam Grant this time asked professionals to review the CV cover letters of students applying for jobs. After receiving suggestions, the students asked for help with another letter. 32% of the professionals agreed. However when students added “thank you so much! I am really grateful” 66% volunteered their services. In other words, a simple expression of gratitude doubled the response.
In the workplace, Doug Conant, the former CEO of the Campbell soup company, is credited with turning the business around. He was no softy – he had financial targets and scoreboards and he replaced 300 out of the top 350 managers in the company after he arrived.
But he wrote 10-20 handwritten thank you notes every single day, six days a week, during the 10 years that he was CEO. These notes were not only to his executives but to people at every level in the company. In Conant’s view, it was because the leaders at Campbell’s showed that they valued their employees as individuals, that the employees responded by helping to lift the company’s performance to its highest level. In other words, what unleashed their people’s generosity was their leaders’ acts of gratitude.
What is significant about both purpose and gratitude is their universality: they cut across all generations, ethnicities and social and economic boundaries. These motivating twins have immense power and they benefit the individuals, the teams, and the organisations that have them.
There is no such thing in fact as an unimportant or a menial job. There is only a job that either has or does not have meaning.
What leaders need to do therefore is to enable people to see the effect or the impact of their work on others. When they see the effect, the work becomes meaningful and therefore motivating!