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Harvard Research Reveals an Easy Way to Make Workers More Productive

Say words to workers that make them feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves.

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BY Peter Cohan - 08 Nov 2018

Harvard Research Reveals an Easy Way to Make Workers More Productive

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

If you want to enlist other people in your cause there are two things you can try: appeal to their emotions or demonstrate why the benefits exceed the costs.

The first approach --what psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 -- the part of the brain that makes snap decisions on instinct -- is a quicker way to get people's support than is System 2 -- where people decide after carefully weighing benefits and costs.

The reason is that people usually prefer to decide with the minimum expenditures of mental energy. And System 1 demands less of that than does System 2.

But precisely how can business leaders put this idea into practice? When people are at work, they want to feel as though they belong to an organization with a bigger purpose. This powerful urge is what Harvard Business School researchers Paul Green and Francesca Gino call "belongingness."

The HBS researchers published a 2017 paper "Seeking to Belong: How the Words of Internal and External Beneficiaries Influence Performance," which concluded that the way to cultivate "belongingness" was for a worker's colleague to utter positive words. Even in jobs that may seem routine and low on potential impact, workers who feel that they belong will be more productive than those who lack that sense of connectedness.

The paper provided results from experiments involving real-world and laboratory data. In a longitudinal field experiment of 180 tomato harvesters, researchers found that worker productivity did not improve "though beneficiary contact with the customer." However, they found that positive words from their colleagues -- who were internal beneficiaries of their tomato harvesting -- "yielded a persistent increase in productivity relative to a control group."

What exactly should you do to apply this insight? Here are three ideas I've observed from my interviews with hundreds of CEOs over the last seven years.

1. Talk about your company's mission.

If you are trying to get people emotionally engaged at work, your company should have a purpose that people find inspiring. If you have a compelling mission, it can be a form of emotional currency that will let your company attract people who toil in dull jobs getting paid more money than you can afford.

So how do you come up with a mission with that power to engage people? Ask yourself why you started your company in the first place or if you didn't start the company, what made you want to lead it?

To satiate people's need for "belongingness," your reason for being at the company ought to be powerful and emotionally contagious. Telling people the story of how your mission came into being is powerfully engaging.

2. Tell stories about how people live your corporate values.

The best leaders spend about 20 percent of their time on culture. A key part of that time is dedicated to articulating what the company values most -- such as going the extra mile to get customers what they need or pushing the envelope on developing new products that will keep your company in the lead.

While articulating these values is a good start, what really helps engage people is when you can tell compelling stories about specific people in the company who have lived these values and achieved exceptional results along the way. Telling such stories in all-company meetings can inspire powerful emotions -- from pride in being part of the company to a desire to follow in the footsteps of the heroes of these stories.

3. Recognize people's specific contributions.

One very powerful way to make people feel that they belong is to recognize when they do things that embody the enduring purpose of your organization.

As a leader, you have the power to engage or alienate your people through the way you respond to news of a work-related accomplishment. If an employee shares with you a customer success story in which she played a role, you ought to thank her directly and consider sharing that praise with your entire team.

By the way, if you are a new manager taking over the role from someone who recognizes employees in this way, your success is at risk unless you continue that belongingness-affirming practice. If you ignore news of your employees' accomplishments they will feel a pronounced loss of engagement with your organization and their productivity will drop.

Words that make people feel that they belong cost you nothing but a bit of empathy and time -- the payoff is greater employee engagement.

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