Managers and executives who want to motivate employees try various tactics: contests, free food, bonuses, and rousing speeches from a stage. But research shows that improving job performance can be as simple as explaining to them that their work has a meaningful impact on the lives of others.
People create meaning about their work, their roles, and themselves based on communication with bosses, conversations with colleagues, and the nature of the job itself. These cues from written and spoken messages constitute what is called meaning-making language. It is a core dimension of motivating language theory and an important tool that managers can use to influence their teams.
The meaning-making language we read and hear on the job provides subtle cues to how we should interact with others and how we should act at meetings and events. It includes facts and anecdotes from the organization’s history and stories about employees who succeeded and others who failed. By interpreting all of this information, employees can determine how they fit in, what the expectations are, and what the unwritten “rules” of the culture are.
When a manager or executive says that the gender and ethnic make-up of the company should be reflected in the make of a committee, that message contains meaning-making language. When an employee who is committed to protecting the environment is encouraged to lead a recycling effort within the company, she realizes she can align her values with the company’s vision.
Managers also can help employees experience their work as meaningful by framing the job as one that promotes and protects the health and well-being of others, a concept called task significance.
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a best-selling author, tested whether the significance of the job would improve performance. He arranged to have fundraisers at a university call center meet with a scholarship winner who had benefited from the calling effort. A month later, callers who had met with the student spent more than twice as much time on the phone and raised an average of $318 more per week than callers who had not spoken with a scholarship recipient.
“Task significance is thought to be particularly critical in today’s economy, as employees are increasingly concerned with doing work that benefits other people and contributes to society,” Grant wrote in the Journal of Applied Psychology.