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Family ties

Stuck in a boring job? Doing it for your family can make it meaningful, finds study co-authored by Dr Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge.

three smiling fingers that are very happy to be family, family concept

Boredom is a serious and common problem at work. It can make work feel meaningless, reduce performance and increase stress. Is there anything an employee with a monotonous job can do, other than look for more interesting work?

Find “family motivation,” suggests a new study in the Academy of Management Journal being published this month. When employees at a Mexican coupon processing factory saw their work as a means to benefit their families, their boring jobs felt more important. Those who were high in family motivation were significantly more productive and energised than their peers.

Dr Jochen Menges

The study builds on the research of Dr Jochen Menges, University Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School, which looks at ways to motivate employees with uninteresting, low-paying jobs, where intrinsic motivation is often absent. In the current study, Dr Menges, joined by Danielle V. Tussing and Professor Adam M. Grant of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business as well as Dr Andreas Wihler of the University of Bonn, examined the motivation of employees at a factory where managers were worried by the potential negative effects of monotonous work on employees, particularly for those employees who might be struggling to support families.

The researchers found that instead of causing strain, families made several positive contributions to workers’ performance and well-being, providing a boost in employees’ energy and increased productivity. “Even though family motivation is unlikely to make tedious work itself more interesting, it gives meaning to work such that employees see work as a way of supporting and sustaining those who are most important to them,” the researchers noted. Furthermore, “Feelings related to home life that likely underlie family motivation, such as concern for one’s family, a sense of pride in one’s family, and the desire to provide for one’s family, can have an energising function at work, bolstering effort and performance.”

The factory where the researchers did their study is one of several thousand “maquiladoras,” Mexican firms located near the US border that operate under a tax-free agreement with the US and provide inexpensive labor for jobs involving assembly, processing, or manufacturing. As described in the study, “Employees spend their working day scanning discount coupons that are shipped to Mexico from US retailers for accounting purposes. The scanning is a standardised manual process that involves taking each coupon out of its shipping container, scanning the bar code, and checking that the system counted and categorised the coupon correctly.”

The 97 female employees who participated in the study were an average of 31 years old, and had worked at the factory for an average of over six years. To assess employees’ motivation, researchers asked participants to complete a survey that asked why they were motivated to do their work with a series of statements with which the employees could indicate their agreement on a seven-point scale. Some statements addressed family motivation (“I care about supporting my family”; “It is important for me to do good for my family”; and “My family benefits from my job”), whereas other addressed intrinsic motivation, (“I enjoy the work itself” and “I find the work engaging”). Job performance was measured through the company’s automated system, which records the number of coupons processed per day by each worker. The researchers believe family motivation captures more than financial need, as they controlled for extrinsic motivation, and workers were paid hourly, regardless of performance. Participants were also asked to record the energy they devoted to their job and the amount of stress they experienced for two weeks.

On average, employees experienced greater family motivation than intrinsic motivation. For employees who reported higher levels of intrinsic motivation, family motivation did not affect performance. However, for those employees with low intrinsic motivation, family motivation significantly boosted performance – employees with high family motivation processed about 10 per cent more coupons compared to employees with low family motivation. In addition, these employees reported feeling significantly more energetic, refreshed, and enthusiastic than those with low family motivation, even while reporting similar levels of stress. The results were unaffected by the size of family or whether participants had partners.

“What makes these findings particularly striking,” comments Dr Menges, “is that employees worked harder to benefit people outside of work – their family. Our research shows, therefore, that the family is a source of motivation for work, and not a distraction from work. These findings, though obtained in a factory in one particular country, may generally inform our understanding of the role of family in work life, highlighting how vitally important and beneficial it can be to see a job not just as a self-centered activity offering joy and rewards, but as a social endeavor that helps to take care of those we love the most.”

The researchers believe this result has important implications for the way organisations and managers organise the workplace, such as whether they allow employees to display family photos or mementos, how they award performance, as well as how they make recruitment decisions. Furthermore, family motivation might also come in the form of initiatives often overlooked by employers – namely, “family benefits… such as college support, adoption support, childcare, eldercare, employee assistance programmes, and mentoring opportunities for employees’ children [and additionally] the extent to which an organisation is imbued with family values or responds to employee tragedies with compassion.”

Though the study highlights the importance of family motivation on job performance, it by no means minimises the importance of intrinsic motivation. Employees who enjoyed their work and found it engaging experienced more energy and lower stress than employees who lacked intrinsic motivation. However, where engagement was lacking, family motivation made up for it. As the researchers noted, “We found a compensatory interaction suggesting that, when intrinsic motivation is lacking, employees with high family motivation perform just as effectively as their intrinsically motivated peers.”