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How can you persuade employees to improve their job performance?

It can be as easy as showing them how their jobs benefit others.

Psychologists have often said that a manager can improve job performance by changing a person’s perception of how the job benefits others. Scholars assume that this tactic is effective because it enables an employee to see her job as more meaningful. But Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School, wanted to prove that there is a link between job performance and a person’s perception of how the job positively affects others.

Showing employees how their jobs are important is significant at a time when many workers, particularly younger employees, want jobs that have a humanitarian impact.

Motivating fundraisers

Grant went to a university fundraising call center where people solicited alumni donations for a scholarship fund. In the experiment, callers in Group A read stories about how their jobs could make a difference in others’ lives, given that previous callers who had worked there raised significant funds for scholarships. And those Group A callers went on to increase the number of pledges they earned, while Group B callers, who read stories about how their job could benefit them personally by expanding their career opportunities, did not improve their performance.

The most dramatic discovery came from a third group of callers. Grant noticed that the callers had no contact with the people who were benefitting from their fundraising. So he arranged for one group to have a 10-minute face-to-face meeting with a scholarship winner who told about how the callers’ efforts had made a difference in his life. Those callers “more than doubled the amount of time they spent on the phone and on the amount of donation money they secured,” Grant wrote in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Their counterparts in a control group did not change their performance.

Inspiring lifeguards

Similarly, Grant experimented with lifeguards at a community recreation center. He asked Group A to read four real stories about rescues performed by other guards, and then to discuss the stories with others in the group. Lifeguards in Group B read stories about how other lifeguards had used the skills and knowledge they learned to advance their career. One month later, Group A readers increased their hours worked, their job dedication, and their helping behavior; Group B did not, Grant said.

The study suggests that if companies provide employees more opportunities to improve the welfare of others, workers will gain a deeper understanding of the social value of their work, and will be motivated to improve their performance.

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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at Amazon.com.

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