Feed Your Social Animals – Your Employees

People don’t live and work in a vacuum – they need stimulation, which can come from multiple sources. Researchers have shown that having motivated, engaged employees is about so much more than a paycheck. Fair compensation is important, but it rarely is the No. 1 reason people enjoy their jobs.

Stephan Meier, a professor at the Columbia Business School, is the co-author of a new study on the non-monetary benefits of work. He and Lea Cassar published a paper in the summer issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives about how economists are thinking about nonmonetary aspects of work. Meier was interviewed recently by Chris Fleisher for the American Economic Association, and his comments are from that article.

Fleisher talked with Meier about “the many ways that a job can provide someone with a sense of meaning, how it can be measured, the implications for workplace policy, and what it could mean for companies and HR professionals,” he wrote.

Meier told Fleisher that people find meaning in their jobs from two sources: the impact of the organization as a whole and the impact of a person’s day-to-day tasks.

“I'm not arguing at all that people just work for nothing and just for good feelings,” Meier said in the interview. “I think monetary incentives are still very important. But if we limit ourselves to think that everything people care about is money, I think we're missing a huge part of what motivates people to show up for work, to work, and to be engaged in the work.”

Meier said that economics experts have “been a little slow in thinking about meaning or non-monetary attributes of the job outside of risk…That I actually get some pleasure and joy from doing something impactful” has only been studied for a few years, he added.

“In our paper, we make this distinction which I think is important. The meaning of the job can come from two sources: One is just the dimension of the job. So I'm working in a children's hospital, and I'm obviously saving kids’ lives. And that creates for me, personally, probably more meaning than if I worked for a tobacco firm or a gun manufacturer. What I'm doing has a positive impact on the world.

“The other aspect of meaning has to do with what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis, whether I'm actually having an impact on what I'm doing. Even within a tobacco firm, I could have a job which is very meaningful in terms of what I'm doing has a direct impact on what the company does. I get recognized, my skill level is exploited in an optimal way, and I'm not wasting any of my competencies. Both aspects are going to be important,” Meier said.

“How that is measured is often very difficult,” Meier said in the interview. “One easy way is to have someone work on a task and, in addition to getting paid for that task, for each output the employer will donate to a charity. Those empirical studies look at whether you just get paid for yourself, or you get paid for yourself and it also triggers that donation, whether that affects people's motivations. And it does.”

Not Just for Good Feelings
Richard Kantor, partner at AON Hewitt and Tim Glowa, associate partner at AON Hewitt, use Conjoint analysis to measure and evaluate employee preferences to help businesses implement successful employee-benefit programs. However, you can incorporate their ideas in your pork operation.

They suggest you and your management team take time to consider the following questions:

  • What is the optimal reward structure for our employees?
  • What are the key reward elements driving preferences?
  • What is most important to our employees and how does it differ by segment?
  • How does our brand or image impact reward preferences and tradeoffs?
  • How much of our reward (benefit) spend is wasted on no-value or low-value items?
  • How do preferences and costs vary by business unit, geography or other factors?
  • What are the key opportunities for change, and how might employees react?

The answers to these questions will provide the empirical data needed to determine change priorities, say Glowa and Kantor. (For more information on compensation tools, look for the article, “4 Winning HR Strategies,” on www.porkbusiness.com on Monday).

Don’t Limit Yourself
While monetary incentives are important, Meier feels managers limit themselves if they think their employees only care about money.

“We’re missing a huge part of what motivates people to show up for work, to work, and to be engaged in the work,” he said.

He believes there are four basic categories for deriving meaning: mission, autonomy, competence, and "relatedness," which refers to people's social connections at work.

  • Mission: The larger impact of what the organization does
  • Autonomy: People want control over what they are doing
  • Competency: People want to use their skills to their full potential
  • Relatedness: Humans are social animals – social interaction helps people show up and be motivated

New Way of Thinking:
Meier points out that there’s more to be know about deriving meaning in the workplace, and it needs to be in coordination with fair compensation. In addition, he says companies need to be careful in how they create authentic meaning. For example if employees think you are introducing corporate responsibility initiatives simply as a way to motivate them, Meier’s research has shown it actually backfires.

“It has to be authentic and not added on,” he said.

“I think meaning from work is important,” Meier said. “It definitely affects how unemployment is not just the loss of income, but people lose much more when they're out of work. We have to take that into account when we're thinking about the cost of unemployment and also when we think about the future of work and how that affects people's lives.”

Editor’s Note: "Nonmonetary Incentives and the Implications of Work as a Source of Meaning" appears in the summer issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.