The open secrets of employee motivation

June 14, 2011: 11:14 AM ET

Employees can easily go along their daily routines without much insight on the people buying their products, but exposing them to customers can serve as a powerful motivator.

By Julian Birkinshaw and Simon Caulkin, contributors

(ManagementInnovationeXchange) -- Employee engagement is, as they say, a no-brainer. There are stacks of literature showing that companies with committed employees who feel strongly about their organization do better financially than those with indifferent employees. In many cases, too, improvement is actually quite easy to achieve.

Large numbers of employees work in silos, with deep functional expertise but no line of sight to the person ultimately buying their product. Yet it turns out that exposure to customers can be a powerful source of insight and motivation.

That is what pharmaceutical giant Roche found when a team devised an experiment to put the engagement proposition to a test. But, in the end, it wasn't quite as simple as that.

The Roche team realized it would be easy to get stuck at a high level of abstraction in a study of this type, so they focused on a simple, straightforward hypothesis: that a deeper emotional understanding of the company's real value to patients and society would deliver extra engagement among employees.

The team believed its employees were already engaged and well-informed, yet there was fuzziness about the company vision. Compared with the famous NASA janitor who, when asked what he was doing, replied, "putting a man on the moon," Roche employees sometimes have a less clear line of sight between their day jobs and what they are meant to achieve.

"If you ask people, 'What do we do?' you'll get the answer that we are a commercial organization that makes life-saving medicines that have a massive impact on people's lives," says Rob Rylance, one of the leaders of the study. "But when you start peeling that back, is this actually resonating emotionally with people or resonating as emotionally as it can?"

Probably not. But the thinking was if patients and patients' experiences could be brought into the organization (particularly for those employees who rarely had direct contact with them), it would help everybody to not only focus their daily priorities and actions but also give them a better sense of the company's guiding mission. More

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