Typical human resource theory and practice has suggested that the best way to strengthen employee commitment is through benefit packages that appeal to the individual’s self-interested motives to receive. New research is beginning to show that this is only half the story – and possibly not the most important half.

Turns out, the old familiar adage “it is better to give than to receive” is profoundly true when it comes to employee engagement.

By Chris Jarvis

Prosocial Sensemaking

As employees, we are continually trying to answer the question: Who am I within this organization? This is a natural process that all people use to make sense of their experiences within a given context or organization.

Prosocial behavior is defined as a “voluntary behavior intended to benefit another” and is usually expressed through acts of sharing, donating, and volunteering. These two concepts of prosocial behavior and sensemaking come together when companies launch employee giving and volunteering programs. Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School and author of the upcoming book “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” suggests:

The act of giving to support programs strengthens employees’ affective commitment to their organization by enabling them to see themselves and the organization in more prosocial, caring terms.

This is a stunning assertion.

If Adam Grant and other researchers are correct, it means that the billions spent by corporations in typical HR benefit packages may not be enough. In fact, by comparison, the ROI of these benefits may be less than those of a robust workplace giving and volunteering program, and at a fraction of the cost.

It’s about the brain; not the wallet.

In a recent article published in the annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, “The Neuroevolution of Empathy” author Jean Decety conducted research demonstrating the following:

The fronto-mesolimbic reward network is engaged to the same extent when individuals receive monetary rewards and when they freely choose to donate money to charitable organizations.

Decety found through behavioral and functional neuroimaging studies that prosocial actions release dopamine and make us feel good (we’ve written about this effect). What is most fascinating about Decety’s work is that she is able to offer an explanation as to why our brains are hardwired to reinforce prosocial behaviors such as giving and volunteering.

As employees interpret these signals, they begin to form an identity that will contribute to the overall productivity and profitability of the company.

As it turns out, this has been a survival tactic among humans for millennium. Needless to say, we are instinctively set to look after our offspring and immediate family members, but the groups of people and cultures that thrived throughout history are those that expanded their caretaking beyond their own family unit. Those that stayed primarily focused on family at the expense of others in the immediate group failed.

This means that today we have evolved to the point where nearly all of us are capable of choosing prosocial behavior, even when it means our wallets take a hit.

The ROI of Prosocial Behavior

Given our predisposition to care for others, we value cultures and organizations where this (being valued) is our experience as well. Nobody wants to feel like they’re just a cog in the wheel. Instead, we desire to know that we matter and that we will be cared for in an ethical way. Equally importantly, we desire to be part of a group that allows us to demonstrate our commitment to care and act justly toward others.

When companies offer their employees space to act in a prosocial manner they began to “make sense” of the organization and their place within it in a positive manner. This is prosocial sensemaking.

Grant conducted multi-method research (not unlike our own) at a Fortune 500 retail corporation and found that offering employees the opportunity to give within the workplace:

“… strengthened affective organizational commitment by triggering prosocial sensemaking about the self — a process through which employees interpreted their personal actions and identities in more caring terms.”

Workplace giving and volunteering is a practical step companies can take to prove they care. With this they are “signaling that helping, giving, and contributing behaviors are valid, acceptable, and encouraged.” As employees interpret these signals, they begin to form an identity that will contribute to the overall productivity and profitability of the company.

So What Happens to Employees Involved in Workplace Giving & Volunteering? 

1. Their productivity increases

Giving triggers a “process of prosocial sensemaking about the self and the company that strengthens employees’ affective commitment to the company.” Affective commitment is key to driving down absenteeism, encouraging engagement, and facilitating teamwork.

2. Their ethics strengthen

When companies provide the opportunity to act in a prosocial manner they encourage employees to view themselves as ethical, prosocial people. This self identity creates value systems to support that identity and guide the decision making process.

3. They become grateful

When companies create opportunities for employees to give and volunteer, the employees develop strong emotional bonds with their employers. This is because when “employees engage in prosocial sensemaking about the self, their commitment is based on gratitude to their organization for facilitating their own giving behaviors and caring identities.”

4. They are proud

Similarly, when companies enable employees to gain a positive sense of themselves through volunteering and giving, the employee transfers a positive image back on to the organization. This positive image is expressed through feelings of pride resulting in stronger allegiance.

Some Notes

A recent neuroimaging study sheds light on a possible biochemical explanation for the positive psychological effects of helping others. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, it was found that the brain’s mesolimbic system was active in participants when they chose to donate money. The mesolimbic system also shows activation in response to monetary rewards and other positive stimuli. Thus, choosing to donate to charity results in an activation of a brain region that produces “feel good” chemicals that promote social bonding, increases happiness, and promotes prosocial behaviour.

Moll, J., Krueger, F., Zahn, R., Pardini, M., de Oliveira-Souza, R., & Grafman, J. (2006). Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decision about charitable donation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103, 15623-15628.

The reunification of Germany caused the collapse of much of former East Germany’s volunteer structure. Controlling for other variables, Meier and Stutzer found that reduced opportunities for volunteer work led to a decrease in happiness. More here.

Furthermore, prosocial motivation is a theoretically and practically significant phenomenon because it has a substantial influence on employees’ work behaviors and job performance. Recent research suggests that prosocial motivation can drive employees to take initiative (De Dreu & Nauta, 2009), help others (Rioux & Penner, 2001), persist in meaningful tasks (Grant et prosocial Motivation at Work 2 al., 2007), and accept negative feedback (Korsgaard, Meglino, & Lester, 1997).

Realized Worth works with companies to take corporate volunteering programs to the next level. Reach out to discuss how we can improve and increase the impact of your program!

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Chris Jarvis
Realized Worth Co-Founder & CEO
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