“The greatest untapped source of motivation” at work is focusing on making a contribution. Adam Grant gives this unconventional advice in The New York Times Magazine cover story “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?” And why take his advice to heart? Because Grant is the youngest-tenured and best-rated professor at Wharton School, the same person Google turns to when they’re trying to solve “big problems,” according to Google’s people analytics chief Prasad Setty.

People want to do things that are meaningful and to know we leave the world a better place through our actions. Though self-interest may be able to give motivation a boost, doing things that are meaningful and make a difference in people’s lives is far more powerful.

Helping people enhances your productivity.

When you get to work to face 300 unopened emails, you may feel quite exasperated. Adam Grant’s advice is to frame it like this:

  • Instead of thinking about responding to 300 emails, think about how each answer will help its recipient.
  • Each time you send an email, you feel good about yourself, and your work is of higher quality.
  • Deciding whether or not to help out is an unnecessary mental task; doing quick favors pays off in the long run.

Helping others improves performance!

One of Grant’s earliest studies was at a call center whose task was to get donations for scholarships. Look at his results:

  • Just telling a phone rep about a student on scholarship and what a positive difference it made, made a difference in how well the reps did in their job.
  • A month later, reps were still impacted, even though they continued to use the same script as before they heard about the scholarship recipient.
  • Reps stayed on the call almost 1.5 times longer and increased revenue by 171%.
  • Even letters of gratitude significantly increased fundraising.

Though workers didn’t specifically recognize this motivation and many discounted it, the results held up after the study was repeated five times.

In a later study, Grant put up two different signs at a hospital hand-washing station. One focused on how doctors or nurses could catch diseases if they were lax. Another reminded them that patients could and this sign increased soap and hand sanitizer use by 45%.

We are human and I see all the time in my work how people help each other. I wonder how often we forget that it’s part of our jobs. How does what you do help or make something easier for someone else?