Want More Motivated Workers? Show Them How They Make a Difference

Three of the most common questions I get from managers are:

  1. “How do we get employees to think more in terms of ‘How can I help my employer?’ vs. ‘What can they do for me?’”
  2. How do we get employees to show more initiative?”
  3. How do you motivate this new generation of employees?”

If the answer to these questions interests you, the two practices I discuss here will, too.

Two smart people practices

These practices are illustrated by a story I heard recently from a client of mine, William Arthur, a subdivision of Hallmark. The two practices are:

  • Link employees’ “Little Picture”— their day-to-day actions and responsibilities — to your Big Picture. Help them see specifically how doing their work with excellence makes your mission, your strategic goals, and your success possible. Also, help them see how their behind-the-scenes performance directly affects your customers’ lives.
  • Recognize and appreciate behaviors that contribute to the Big Picture, because people replicate what you appreciate.

The story begins with Stephanie Saunders, a customer service representative at William Arthur. She received a thank you letter from a customer who had purchased stationary to announce the death of her husband. In the letter, the customer told Stephanie she especially appreciated her kind customer service given the difficult circumstances involved.

While Stephanie did a number of things to make sure the rush order went smoothly and gave the dealer extra TLC , she also recognized that she couldn’t have delighted their customer without the people behind the scenes performing their roles flawlessly.

“Everyone who touched the job made an impact on this woman’s life. I only answered the phone call,” she noted.

Thanking everyone who helped out

The stellar, mistake-free, sense-of-urgency performance of employees who designed, printed, quality-checked, packaged, and shipped the stationery, made it possible for her to deliver William Arthur’s brand promise.

To make sure the people behind the scenes realized how their stellar performance made it possible for William Arthur to delight both customers — the store owner and the end user — she made copies of the letter and hand delivered it to the managers of the various departments who processed the order.

Before we continue, notice what happened.

Not only did an individual contributor take the initiative to link behind-the-scenes employees with the customer and the Big Picture, she also took initiative to show appreciation and recognition. Most employees don’t get these from their manager, let alone a co-worker.

When Stephanie’s manager, Joan Gill, saw the letter, she forwarded it to William Arthur’s president, Paul Wainman, who then sent it to all employees along with a note that included these words:

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This is a great reflection on our Brand Strengths – Quality of the Experience; Thoughtfulness; Emotion & Meaning – and is a clear indication of the impact that we have on people’s lives as we pursue our Vision:

Bringing a sense of meaning a purpose

We will be the company people turn to first when they want truly personal, expertly crafted ways to celebrate and commemorate the relationships, occasions and moments that give life lasting meaning.

Thank you to all involved who made this lady’s life a little more tolerable at a particularly difficult time – and to everybody for the thousands of lives that we impact each day.

Notice how the president, Paul Wainman, explicitly connected their performance with the company’s brand promise and strengths. By doing this, and by reminding employees of the difference they make, he helped remind them of the importance of their work and the contribution they make…not just to the company’s brand promise, but to people’s lives.

By connecting employees with the importance and impact of what they do, you bring a greater sense of meaning and purpose to their work. Because humans hunger for meaning and purpose, when employees believe what they do makes a difference in the world, it enlivens and animates them in ways no generous benefits package, rah rah speech or Employee Appreciation Day can.

Making work meaningful by showing employees how they make a difference is a key ingredient of the “Employer of Choice Secret Sauce” of employers like Disney, Ritz Carlton, and Zappos. It also helps you keep employee morale high during difficult times.

Take away messages to apply

  1. Make sure each employee knows they play an important role in — and share the responsibility for — creating a collaborative, high performance culture. Make sure they get the “why” and the “how” so they know both how important it is for them to do their part, and how specifically they can play their part well.
  2. Teach employees how they can lead by example. They can express appreciation and recognition. They can let people behind the scenes hear the voice of the customer. They can also model taking ownership of problems, and showing initiative.
  3. Teach employees how to spread goodwill. Practices that spread goodwill include showing appreciation and recognition, and finding out how they and their team can serve their internal customers better. Everybody can do it, it costs nothing, and can make a huge difference in how smoothly and fast your organization runs.
  4. If you want employees to act like what they do matters, you need to remind them that what they do really does matter. You do this through sharing stories of how doing their job with excellence made a difference in the life of a customer (whether the customer is a person or a business). Better still, bring your customer’s voice to them directly through video or in-person testimonials.
  5. Make sure employees understand your brand promise and your sources of competitive advantage. Then show them explicitly how they make those possible.
  6. Learn how to “reverse engineer” your business goals into the behaviors that will make them possible. To increase your ability to connect the dots between employee behaviors that make your brand promise and strategy possible, learn how to reverse engineer your brand promise and strategic goals into a Behavioral Vision—i.e. the specific behaviors that will make your brand promise and strategic goals possible.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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