Marie-Hélène Budworth

Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, specializing in learning, development & motivation.

Marie-Hélène Budworth

Prosocial motivation: motivate by doing good

August 19th, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

There has been some interesting work recently on what really motivates employees.  And a lot of this work has received a great deal of media attention thanks to Dan Pink’s book, Drive.  (For a summary of this work by the author himself, take a look at this YouTube video).  I think the most interesting work coming out right now is on prosocial motivation. 

Prosocial motivation is the drive to have a positive impact on others – to promote or protect the well-being of another.  Prosocial motivation implies that individuals want to help their fellow employees, their clients, and their customers.  Researchers have found that employees are motivated when they can see the impact that their efforts have on others.  Now this idea may sound similar to earlier motivational theories – ideas around job design and knowledge of results comes to mind for me, but the underpinning principles here are somewhat different.  This type of motivation is clearly relational.  People want to know that they are affecting other people.  Some of the most exciting work in this area is being done by Adam Grant at Wharton. 

Dr. Grant recently published some work where he compared motivators for fundraising call centre employees.  For one group, he provided employees with information on how the job might benefit them personally.  For a second group, be provided information on how the job benefits those who receive the funds raised.  The second group brought in significantly more money than the first.  In other words, employees were motivated to a greater extent when they understood how their efforts would affect other people as compared to understanding how their efforts might benefit them personally – interesting. 

This line of inquiry challenges the common belief that money is the most important motivator.  Behavioural economist Dan Ariely has been examining this notion for some time.  He recently Blogged about some work on what he calls ‘social bonuses.’  He found that people were motivated to work for rewards given to their team mates.  The effect was stronger when the person they were able to assist was proximal to them.

Taken together, I think these are interesting findings.  We have spent decades trying to motivate people using reward and punishment.  Some would argue that this has contributed to the current economic crisis in the form of unmanageable bonus structures and unsustainable reward systems.  Researchers are suggesting that these bonuses do not work – especially for complex, creative work.  The notion that it is possible to motivate people to perform well by helping them to see how they are doing good is extraordinary.  This is certainly an idea worth exploring. 


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