Helping Others is the Greatest Motivator


I have always believed that the mission of business is to help people. It’s not about you, about what you want. It’s about what you can do for your customers, for your partners, for others around you to bring value to them. A lot of people take a different view, though—they think it’s about making money. Now the work of one of the best young business minds in the world is providing research that backs up my belief.

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School of Business, specializing in organizational psychology. That’s the study of workplace dynamics—how to get more out of your employees, how to make them be more productive, how to improve office morale, and the like.

Traditionally, organizational psychology has looked at financial incentives as the key to getting the most out of your team and running your business most effectively. You offer bonuses, prizes, and trips. You motivate yourself and your team with the knowledge that increased productivity will lead to making more money. The second big motivator in traditional organizational psychology is making work inherently interesting—have people do things they love and would do anyway. The biggest driver, though, is making money. We harness selfishness to generate growth.

Related: Exploit Your Employees’ Unique Talents

But Adam turns all that on its head; his credo is helpfulness. It’s all about helping others, he says. If you are going to help people, to make their lives better, and do so without any expectation of getting something back, you are more motivated and more productive than someone who has a different mission. According to his research, “The greatest untapped source of motivation… is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

Instead of selfishness, it’s selflessness that is the real difference maker. We work harder when we see what we are doing as helping others. Consider just a few of his studies:

  • Adam was brought into a call center whose revenues helped fund scholarships. Instead of offering reward incentives to workers, he brought in some of the beneficiaries of the scholarships to talk about how much it meant to them. After that, productivity skyrocketed, and revenues went up as much as 400 percent!
  • An experiment studying hospital hygiene put up two different signs encouraging doctors to wash their hands. One sign said that “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases,” while the other said “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.” Doctors were much more likely to wash when the signs pointed out the benefit to patients.
  • Workers at a retail store reported a stronger attachment to the company and greater commitment when the company set up an employee-beneficiary fund to help employees in need. The company matched any funds given by workers, and it was the donors who actually reported the strongest increase in commitment, not the recipients.

Most importantly, Adam lives out his theories. He approaches every situation with an eye on helping others—he meets with people constantly, responds to every message he gets, fills out countless recommendations and facilitates countless introductions. And the end result? He’s one of the most successful people in his field at just 33 years old.

More with Adam: Best of the Business Mentoring Series — Give and Take with Adam Grant

A sense of service to our customers, our prospects, and our business partners is the greatest source of motivation that exists. So many people approach situations looking to see, “What’s in it for me?” and then wonder why they can’t find good partners, why there are no strong relationships. When you make it about the other person, when you start by looking to build a genuine relationship and don’t worry about selling anything or getting your “fair share,” then you build a powerful connection. And in the long run, that will come back to you tenfold.

Adam was a guest on our Business Mentoring Show

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Fran Tarkenton

Fran Tarkenton is an entrepreneur and NFL Hall of Famer, and the founder of and Tarkenton Companies. With a passion for small business, he’s started more than 20 businesses during and after his NFL career. Fran is a small business coach for entrepreneurs and business owners, providing advice and guidance through sites such as,, and more. He has written about business issues in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. New and World Report, and USA Today, along with regular appearances on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. You can follow Fran on Twitter @Fran_Tarkenton.