Making a Difference at Work

When workers know their work makes a difference, productivity rises and so does job satisfaction.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published July 22, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

People want to feel that they are making a difference, especially when it comes to the jobs they do.

When workers are aware that their work makes a difference to others—even in small ways—their job satisfaction rises. So does their productivity.

The interesting thing is that the measures bosses often take to boost productivity among workers have a dampening effect on worker satisfaction, and steps taken to boost worker morale tend to lessen productivity. It's rare to find something that boosts both morale and productivity at the same time.

Adam Grant, an organizational psychology doctoral student at the University of Michigan, thought that researchers could find ways to make workers more productive and happier at the same time. He conducted several experiments and field studies to look at a variety of workers from fire fighters to telemarketers.

He found that feeling that your work had a positive impact on others made a difference both to people's job satisfaction and productivity.

One surprise: Of 60 fire fighters studied, 10 actually hoped they could fight more fires so they could have a greater impact on people. Among the telemarketers, those who believed their work had a positive impact on others were more satisfied with their jobs and actually had more sales per hour.

"Most work makes a difference in someone's life in some way, or else the job wouldn't exist," Grant says. "We found that something as minor as showing people the client who benefited from the work made them care more. Just seeing that person, not even talking to him, could make them care more about what they were doing."

Some people get instant feedback and know immediately how their work impacts others. Doctors, teachers and performers are in this group. When they do something appreciated by the people they serve, job satisfaction soars.

In one experiment Grant conducted, students were asked to improve the cover letter on another student's job application. One group was told the student didn't really need a job. Another group was told the student really needed help finding a job.

Some of the students in each group briefly saw the student in person. The others saw only his picture. The group that saw the student and knew he needed the job made 25 percent more changes in the cover letter and spent more time working to improve it than did the others.

Says Grant: "Even in a job like packing paper clips, if you understand how people are helped by what you do, how you make a difference to them, you will be motivated to care more about what you are doing."