The idea that your actions at work contribute to the betterment of society — to help protect the environment, end poverty, or promote social justice — is an inspiring one. Recent research suggests that it can be a powerful motivator too. Indeed, the once-monolithic view of financial incentives as the way to motivate employees has been challenged by a wave of studies showing that linking people’s work to prosocial causes can motivate people in ways that transcend their paycheck or bonus. Employees want to see themselves as good people and work on behalf of organizations that positively contribute to the world. Consequently, when their actions advance a prosocial cause, they may work harder, for longer hours, and even for less compensation.
It is no surprise, then, that when leaders seek to motivate their workforce by taking up “win-win” behaviors — ones that are good for both society and a company’s bottom line — many assume it’s best to frame their appeals in prosocial terms. Whether it’s getting employees to use less energy at work or nudging delivery drivers to reduce the time their vehicles are idling, a statement such as “Help conserve the earth’s vital resources” would seem more motivational than “Help conserve our company’s vital resources.”
But is that actually right? Sure, practical rationales for changing behavior don’t seem as righteous or sexy as prosocial ones. But they do very clearly signal that an organization’s motives are genuine. If you claim to be driven by a desire to make society better, your employees may wonder if this is actually true, whereas if you provide simple, practical rationales, they’re unlikely to question them. That made us wonder: Is it better to motivate employees by inspiring them with a sense of prosocial purpose, or by communicating more humdrum but genuine-feeling reasons to change their behavior?
In soon-to-be-published research, we investigated this issue by studying a change initiative at a large university — and what we found challenges conventional wisdom.
The initiative involved convincing employees to plan and coordinate orders of office supplies so that every order would reach a value of at least $50, a practice we refer to as “bundling.” This represented the kind of opportunity that most organizations relish: a way to reduce both costs and environmental footprint. But leaders had to figure out how to communicate why they wanted employees to change their behavior. Should they extol the prosocial, environmental benefits? The instrumental cost savings? Or both?
We designed a field experiment find out. We randomly assigned employees to view either a prosocial (“limiting pollution”), instrumental (“limiting costs”), or mixed-motive (“limiting pollution and limiting costs”) message for caring about bundling each time they access the organization’s procurement system. We then evaluated changes in employees’ behavior by comparing a six-month pre-study period to a six-month experimental period, covering 10,169 purchases in 556 university offices.
To our surprise, the prosocial message was actually the least effective in changing employee behaviors — and the instrumental message was most effective. The mixed-motive had less clear effects, but it tended to be in the middle. This result stands in stark contrast to the idea that when in doubt, organizations should tout their contributions to environmental sustainability and other prosocial goals.
To understand why we got the results we did, we conducted additional survey experiments with a separate group of people. We described the concept of bundling and then presented one group with the prosocial motive and another group with the instrumental motive, just as in the field experiment. We asked everyone how they viewed the organization given its expressed motive for bundling and whether they would be inclined to bundle if they worked there. We found that when organizations offer a prosocial rationale for behavior that also advances their bottom line, people see the organization as less genuine — they question whether senior managers are disclosing what they really care about. Offering a cost-savings message may not conjure inspiration or a profound purpose, but it seems real and true to employees. And it turns out that seeming genuine matters. We find that people are more willing to change their behaviors when they believe the motives the organization claims are its true motives.
This is not to say that prosocial messages are bad things. They have many virtues outside the scope of our work. Attaching a broader prosocial purpose and meaning to work can provide inspiration, a sense of belonging, and deepen one’s commitment to an organization. Even in the context of our survey experiments, we observe the power of prosocial messages to engage people — but only when people perceive them to be true. We suspect that in many organizational contexts the notion of a purely prosocial motive would be met with skepticism. This is important because the “win-win” contexts in which organizations have much to gain financially from prosocial behaviors may be the very ones in which leaders should be most wary about extolling their prosocial motives. It may be that prosocial motives may only seem genuine and prove effective for changing behavior in selective contexts — when organizations have consistently acted in ways that align with prosocial values, for example, even when costly.
These findings have direct and potentially substantial implications for organizations seeking to promote a wide range of activities that can be justified on both prosocial and instrumental grounds—whether they can make a case for diversity based on social justice or performance, or for improving working conditions in supplier factories with an appeal to morality or risk reduction.
Prosocial values have the potential to inspire and motivate under certain conditions, but in many organizational contexts, it may simply be more effective to acknowledge bottom-line concerns. In our university case, that meant encouraging leaders to say, “We care about limiting costs” — not a profound declaration but one that comes across as authentic.