Meaningful work


In the 1970s, scholars Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham developed their job design model, in which they argued, among other things, that people will exhibit high degrees of internal motivation if they believe they are performing meaningful work. In this article on the Business Week website, Nick Tasler argues that making the meaning of work more clear to employees can be a very effective, and low cost mechanism for enhancing organizational performance. For instance, Tasler describes how Volvo encourages customers and employees to share stories of how people avoided serious injury in a car crash thanks to the automaker’s safety features. Similarly, Medtronic invites customers to corporate meetings to share their stories of how the firm’s medical devices saved their lives.

Tasler’s article cites the research of Wharton Professor Adam Grant in this area. Here is an excerpt from the Business Week column:

“According to research by Adam Grant, an associate professor of management at the Wharton School, making this connection doesn’t just improve morale. It also has a huge impact on the bottom line. Grant has discovered that when people get to meet a living, breathing person who benefits from their work, their job performance skyrockets. In one study, Grant found that university fund-raisers who listened to a scholarship recipient tell how the assistance had benefited him increased, by 200%, the number of weekly calls they made to potential donors. The average amount of funds they brought in jumped 500%, from $400 per week to more than $2,000 per week.

That’s an impressive increase in performance by any standard. It’s especially so when you consider what did not happen to create the surge in productivity. The callers were not offered a raise. They did not go through extra training to sharpen their interpersonal skills or persuasion techniques. Their managers did not receive extra training on how to be more charismatic or transformational. It required no internal branding effort to communicate a newer, more inspiring vision. The only expense incurred by the organization—time or money—for this dramatic increase in productivity was the 10 minutes of time that fund-raisers spent listening to the beneficiary of their work.”

As I read this article, I was reminded of a visit that I paid to Edwards Lifesciences several years ago in southern California. Edwards Lifesciences produces heart valves. The company executives explained that they occasionally brought customers in to meet the person who had worked on their actual valve replacement. These meetings often proved remarkably emotional, incredibly inspiring, and of course, motivational to all. Executives credited these types of efforts to demonstrate the meaning of the work with helping to create an incredibly dedicated workforce which also exhibited remarkably low turnover.