The secret to getting ahead at work? A sense of service to others

In contrast, employees who are more focused on their own needs often feel frustrated, underappreciated and unmotivated.

Recently, there has been a greater emphasis on fostering employee engagement and commitment in the workplace. Engaged employees tend to be more creative and innovative, which is particularly valuable in today’s fast-paced economy. The Everett Clinic, now Optum Care Washington, was once so successful in engaging its employees that Fortune magazine recognized it as one of the top 100 companies to work for in the U.S. for three consecutive years.

What’s the secret sauce for employee engagement? Opportunities for advancement, appreciation from the top for a job well done, effective communication at all levels, meaningful core values, incentives aligned with job performance and competitive compensation are all important.

Adam Grant, Ph.D., a professor at the Wharton Business School and the author of “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success,” studies workplace dynamics and has a different view of what motivates employees, valuing different elements than traditional views.

He notes, “The greatest untapped source of motivation is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other people’s lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

Dr. Grant conducted several studies to research this theory. In one study of a fundraising call center, he had a scholarship recipient come and talk to the fundraisers about how the money had helped him. After his presentation, the call center raised significantly more money — even though the fundraisers attributed their increased success to other factors.

Dr. Grant looks at “givers” who are exceptionally successful at what they do. They have a high degree of job satisfaction and self-esteem. And they are promoted and rise to the top of where they work.

As an administrator (I was the director of Behavioral Health at The Everett Clinic for 25 years) and as a psychologist, I observed this daily. Staff and providers dedicated to helping others are the most engaged employees and have high job satisfaction. They are fully engaged in their mission; no one can miss their energy and commitment. They live the core value of “Doing what’s right for the patient.” They love their jobs. And everyone loves them, too.

In addition, I’ve noticed other employees and providers who are more focused on their own needs and comfort. They often feel frustrated, underappreciated and unmotivated. They wonder: “Why don’t others see how hard I work?” Dr. Grant says they are looking for motivation in the wrong place. It comes from the desire to help others, to be helpful and to contribute to their community.

I remember talking to a friend of mine, a critical care doctor, who sometimes, like everyone else, didn’t look forward to going to work on a Monday morning. He would tell himself: “Think of how fortunate I am. I get to work and help the sick and injured become whole. I have the good fortune to have a job where I can make a difference in other people’s lives. I’m so lucky.” After reminding himself of his good fortune, his Monday morning attitude changed 180 degrees.

This kind of thinking motivates us to be the best we can be and sets the stage for success in whatever we do.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at Optum Care Washington, formerly The Everett Clinic.

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