Some managers see employees’ family concerns as distractions that take their focus off of completing tasks, meeting deadlines, and boosting productivity.

However, new research shows that a desire to help one’s family may actually improve the motivation and energy levels of workers, helping them succeed even when their daily tasks are mundane or frustrating. And that could mean that companies that help their workers strengthen family bonds—by offering flexible work options, for example—will help both their employees and their bottom line.

The research behind these conclusions is discussed in the paper, “When Job Performance is All Relative: How Family Motivation Energizes Effort and Compensates for Intrinsic Motivation,” published in the Academy of Management Journal in April 2017. The study was conducted by Jochen I. Menges of the WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management; Danielle V. Tussing and Adam M. Grant, both of the University of Pennsylvania; and Andreas Wihler of the University of Bonn.

The researchers wrote that many studies support the notion that, when work is interesting, employees are motivated to perform better.

“However, many jobs are not designed to enable intrinsic motivation,” the report says. “Across the manufacturing, service, and agricultural sectors, it is common for employees to have little discretion in tasks, decisions, work methods, and schedules. … When pure intrinsic motivation is not tenable, rather than attending to the monotonous aspects of a job, individuals may find meaning by focusing on how the outcomes of work align with their values.”

One of those values may be supporting one’s family. This desire to take care of a spouse and dependents appears to be especially motivational when employees don’t necessarily love what they are doing at work, the researchers found.

To test this hypothesis, they studied workers in a Mexican company that specializes in processing coupons. Employees there spend hours every day scanning coupons that are shipped to Mexico from U.S. retailers for accounting purposes. The researchers used a survey to measure the employees’ motivations, then asked them to fill out a diary about their stress and energy levels before starting their jobs for 10 working days. They also collected objective job performance scores for each employee during the study period.

According to a Wall Street Journal article about the study, “workers who reported the most energy and processed the largest number of coupons, despite disliking the work itself, were those who felt strong commitment to family, which could include spouses, children, parents, cousins or other kin. Those women processed about 10 percent more coupons a week than employees who reported less family-driven motivation.”

In other words, the report says, the survey, daily diary, and performance measures all suggested that family motivation offset the uninteresting nature of the work, leading to enhanced energy for employees. And that finding could have an impact on how businesses approach the always-present problem of keeping workers engaged and productive.

For example, instead of focusing on monetary incentives, “strategies to boost family motivation may increase worker performance without detrimental side effects,” the report says.

“Extant research describes the family either as a source of potential conflict with work that can pull employees away from work, or as a source of enrichment that can improve employees’ work life,” the report says. “We address this tension around work–family conflict versus enrichment by presenting family motivation as a neglected way that the family can enrich work. …

“Also, research tends to emphasize how work experiences influence family life, whereas we answer calls to examine the other direction of family influencing work behaviors. 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 energizing function at work, bolstering effort and performance.”

If leaders create opportunities for employees to experience that family motivation, the report says, it may facilitate higher levels of job performance. And those benefits may also apply to people who have more complex and rewarding jobs, as opposed to only those facing mundane and repetitive tasks every day.

“For example, family events such as company picnics and ‘bring your child to work’ days allow employees to bring their home lives into the workplace more clearly,” the report says. “Managers may also be able to help by understanding the nature of their employees’ family motivation and offering employees opportunities to meet their families’ needs. For example, those with high family motivation may especially benefit from flextime by enabling them to better manage their work and family demands.”

This study provides yet another example of the importance of work-life balance and flexibility when it comes to bolstering both family ties and productivity. It’s the kind of information that should motivate employees and employers alike to build flex work plans.

Does this report surprise you? How have family ties motivated you to work harder? What do you think companies should do to further promote that kind of motivation? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

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