March 1, 2022
Prosocial behaviors are socially accepted actions that benefit other individuals or communities. They can be motivated by many factors such as empathy, altruism, or one’s value system in how a person focuses on others. They can also stem from more practical considerations such as being a recipient of positive behaviors through a system of reciprocity. Prosocial behaviors not only benefit the individuals at the receiving end, but in the workplace, human-centered approaches can lead to improved business results.
Improving productivity and efficiency have been a goal of human work for centuries with many different attempts to optimize performance through means such as division of labor, time and motion studies, and the moving assembly line. As employee gratification became a challenge, financial incentives and schools of leadership emerged in attempts to increase employee output.
Most recently, lean manufacturing and six sigma, foundations of continuous improvement, have been a focus of factories. Tenets of these systems include prosocial elements such as employee involvement, employee recognition, and organizational mission and vision. However, companies vary in their ability to implement and sustain these systems, sometimes losing the inclusivity of the human-centered elements to the pressure for ever-increasing financial performance expectations.
An example of prosocial behavior that can contribute to improved performance is providing a culture that is psychologically safe for all team members regardless of their status or role in the organization. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, describes psychological safety as a perception that speaking up will not have repercussions for the person raising the concern. She also points out that psychological safety facilitates learning from failures, which is a behavior that benefits organizational performance.
Organizations can also engage in prosocial behaviors by providing equitable opportunities for people of both genders. Psychological safety is enhanced when minority members of the team do not feel as though they must act or behave differently than the majority due to persistent stereotypes. This enables more diversity of thought which can also lead to enhanced performance.
Manufacturing organizations can lead the way in creating environments which are psychologically safe for all identity groups as they offer career opportunities in many functional areas, STEM and professional, and in both white- and blue-collared professions. Leaders, in particular, can help break down persistent stereotypes through their actions and what they deem socially acceptable as they go about their daily responsibilities.
Numerous studies have been conducted that correlate prosocial missions to improved performance results. Mirco Tonin, UniCredit Foscolo Europe Fellow at the Economics Department of the Central European University, and Michael Vlassopoulis, University of Southampton, School of Social Sciences witnessed a 13% productivity rise when workers became aware that their services were benefiting incarcerated individuals in positive life changes. Gosnell et al., National Bureau of Economic Research, found a 6.5% in job satisfaction when Virgin American pilots had contributions made to charities on their behalf when meeting their fuel emission targets.
As the leader of a rubber part manufacturer, my team certainly had more palpable energy when they knew how the parts they were molding were being used by our customers to make the world a better place. This, combined with valuing their input on various issues that had previously been reserved for only a small number of leaders, led to record productivity in the facilities.
Lower turnover intentions have also been associated with employees of organizations that offer the opportunity to participate in serving others through work, according to Rolf van Dick, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, as it facilitates a meaningful shared identity with the employing organization and increases trust. In leading large manufacturing organizations over multiple decades, I have found trust to lead to better business results as people focus their energy in productive ways that enhance organizational culture and waste less energy on fact-checking and speculation about the intentions of others with whom they interact.
Organizations can also capitalize on creating prosocial missions to attract talent. According to the 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends, a global survey of more than 11,000 Human Resource and business leaders, a fundamental change is underway, in which companies are judged on the relationship with their workers, customers, and community. I have certainly experienced this trend as my interviews have shifted over the years to members of younger generations who are much more conscious about how the hiring organization supports the community in which it operates.
If a business is looking to improve operational performance, it is highly suggested engaging its team members in determining what prosocial behaviors and activities would be motivational to the workforce. There is no doubt that a human-centered approach for attraction and retention of talented people that feel safe to contribute can lead to improved business results.
Kathy Miller is an Executive Coach and Business Transformation Advisor. She has held numerous Senior Operations Executive roles including plant operations manager, general manager, global vice president and global director at General Motors/Delphi Automotive Systems, Parker Hannifin, Rolls-Royce, and Vertiv Corporations. Kathy holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Industrial & Systems Engineering from Kettering University, a Master’s Degree of Business Administration from Ball State University, and a Master’s Degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a Shingo Prize Recipient for Large Businesses as a Plant Operations Manager (2004) and was inducted into the Women in Manufacturing Hall of Fame in 2021. Kathy is co-author of Steel Toes and Stilettos: A True Story of Women Manufacturing and Lean Transformation Success (Dec 2021, Taylor & Francis).