Prosocial behavior. You may never have heard this term, let alone in a business context—but it can be a powerful motivator in the workplace

Here’s an example:

When I was a machine operator on a book manufacturer’s production line, the number of books we churned out per hour was everything.

Sure, we’d keep an eye on quality and sometimes tinker with settings during a run. But as long as the books we produced met standards, we kept running.

We knew that numbers matter, so it wasn’t hard to prioritize productivity over quality.

But then our plant installed a new line specifically designed for Bible production. One of our customers sent a VP to talk to the people at the plant who produced their Bibles. I only remember one thing she said:

“You aren’t running books. You’re. Running. Bibles.”

We all looked at each other. We understood that Bibles play an important role in religion, but she was also making a larger point. Bibles are often given as gifts. They become family heirlooms, and they generally take on greater significance than the physical object they represent.

We had been thinking of books from our perspective: numbers.

The VP thought of Bibles from her customer’s perspective: as a precious item for them and their families.

And so we treated Bible production with a lot more care—because we were thinking less about ourselves and more about other people.

What is prosocial behavior?

Research shows that people are much more likely to follow processes, guidelines, and rules when they realize that doing so helps others. This behavior is defined as “prosocial.”

Take something simple, like hand washing in hospitals. Signs reminding healthcare professionals to wash their hands are everywhere—yet most only wash their hands between one-third and one-half of the time after they come into contact with patients or germs. 

Why? According to Adam Grant, “Most safety messages are about personal consequences. They tell you to wash your hands so you don’t get sick.” 

It appeared most people weren’t motivated to avoid danger to themselves. So Grant ran a simple experiment, posting two different signs over soap and hand sanitizer dispensers:

Sign 1: “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.” 

Sign 2: “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” 

(Note: Bolding did not appear in the original signs.)

What happened? Signs referencing personal risks were ineffective. But signs referencing risks to patients increased soap and sanitizer use by one-third and increased overall hand washing by 10 percent. 

As Grant says, “Our findings challenge prevailing wisdom in the healthcare professions… that the best way to get people to wash their hands is to scare them about their own health.”

Similarly, asking us book manufacturers to put more focus on quality because it was our job? That didn’t work.

Asking us to put more focus on quality because it made a difference to our customers? That worked a treat.

How prosocial behavior can impact your bottom line

Getting your team to follow procedures because they improve quality, reduce waste, or cut costs may work. But the better approach is to show how and why those processes help other people.

Say you own a landscaping business. You don’t just provide lawn care services; you help customers take pride in their homes or create their very own “oasis.”

The same is true if you own a restaurant. Sure, you serve food. But you also provide a place for families and friends to gather, bond, and create memories.

Successful businesses provide value by making customers’ lives easier, filling their needs, or solving their problems. Help your employees understand how what they do makes a real difference in people’s lives. 

Then your business procedures won’t seem like rules your employees are expected to follow. Instead, they will serve as a roadmap for making other’s lives a little better. From my own experience, that’s when both productivity and quality grow.

How to implement prosocial behavior in your business

There are many ways to embrace prosocial behavior in the workplace. Here are a couple ideas to get you started:

1. Focus on the “how.” Provide broad guidelines for how your team should resolve problems. Take potential late deliveries, for example. You could allow employees to spend up to $100 to satisfy the customer. They could expedite shipping, add a complementary product or service, or better yet, find out what issues a late delivery will cause a customer and take steps to mitigate those issues. That way your employees can focus on making the customer’s life better instead of blindly following a checklist.

2. Lead by example. Model the behavior you want your employees to display. An easy way is to reward employees with money or prizes they can use for the team as a whole rather than solely on themselves. This reinforces a sense of togetherness and doing for others. 

Encouraging prosocial behavior can help your employees find a little more meaning in what they do. In addition to delivering higher quality work, they may go home every day feeling a little more fulfilled, knowing that what they do really does matter.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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