How Family Drives People to Excel at Work

How Family Drives People to Excel at Work

Tennis legend Serena Williams recently revealed her new venture, Wyn Beauty, after stepping away from the sport. Williams’ decision to retire from tennis to prioritize her family extends to her focus on beauty, which is also a family-driven choice. As Williams expressed, “Motherhood has given me a new perspective on beauty through my daughter, Olympia’s eyes. We love experimenting with makeup together, and I think about how these moments will shape both of our beauty journeys… I hope my daughters see my varied passions — from tennis to beauty — and learn they can pursue dynamic careers and diverse interests.”

Williams’ daughter, Olympia, has been a source of motivation for her mother since before her birth. Williams was two months pregnant when she won the Australian Open. In a public letter to her newborn daughter, Williams highlighted how much she anticipated her daughter watching her from the stands, saying that “you gave me the strength I didn’t know I had.”

In the same year Serena found strength from her daughter on the tennis courts, we published our study on family motivation, examining how family inspires individuals to excel at work. In a very different setting — the arid desert of northern Mexico near the U.S. border — we observed 97 employees working in a low-cost factory processing coupons. Through conversations with these workers and systematic surveys, an interesting trend emerged: those who excelled did so not for personal gain, but for their family’s benefit.

Family is a cornerstone in most people’s lives, transcending cultures and geographies. However, the notion that family can motivate work performance has been largely ignored. Historically, family has been viewed as competing with work for an individual’s limited resources, such as time and energy. A significant body of research on work-family conflict has supported this notion, illustrating how work and family demands can clash and interfere with each other.

Our research, and the experiences of the workers in Mexico we studied, suggest otherwise. Contrary to the belief that family primarily drains energy from work, we discovered that family can energize one’s work. These findings prompt a reevaluation of family as a crucial source of motivation in the workplace.

Since our initial publication in 2017, subsequent studies have supported and extended our findings. We now understand how family influences work motivation and how managers can implement these insights within their organizations.

Family as a Work Motivator Research on motivation has shown that people work harder if their job provides financial rewards and status (extrinsic motivation), joy and fulfillment (intrinsic motivation), and a sense of contributing to others (prosocial motivation). However, one often overlooked reason for working is family. Many individuals are driven to work each day out of a desire to support their family and because their family benefits from their employment. This family motivation can enhance work performance, inspiring individuals to put forth their best effort.

The low-wage employees we studied spend their workdays scanning discount coupons sent to Mexico from U.S. retailers. This tedious, manual task involves removing each coupon from its container, scanning the barcode, and ensuring the system processes it correctly. We found that those motivated by their family had more energy for their work. This increased energy, in turn, helped them achieve their daily work targets. Further studies among both low-income and high-income employees in China also found that family motivation boosted work effort, leading to higher productivity.

Family motivates work effort for various reasons. The most straightforward is the desire to ensure financial stability for the family. However, family motivation extends beyond finances. Parents often strive to excel in their jobs to serve as role models, demonstrating a strong work ethic and teaching their children positive career strategies — much like Serena Williams’ wish to show her daughters the value of pursuing multiple interests. These dynamics were evident in qualitative interviews conducted in South Asia. One employee stated, “My kids mean everything to me. I want to give them the best and be a role model. I want to teach them to honor their responsibilities and earn a respectable living.”

Work can also be a source of pride, as employees share their achievements to make their family proud. As another South Asian employee noted, “My family takes pride in my work, my earning capabilities, and my career growth. Their encouragement and support motivate me to grow.” Just as Serena Williams cherished the thought of her daughter watching her work, these employees found joy in seeing their family’s pride in their accomplishments.

Family can also provide a broader perspective that helps employees navigate work challenges. Mark Buckingham, a physiotherapist who worked with athletes who became new parents, observed: “Babies put a bad day or poor training session into perspective. They make athletes better at time management. People don’t overtrain as much because they lack the time. Athletes often improve after having babies because they gain a better sense of balance.”

These focus and time management skills also translate to the workplace. Ironically, mothers are often advised not to mention their children during job interviews to avoid being perceived as less committed to their careers. Yet this traditional thinking contradicts research findings: family can enhance work focus and absorption. Employees with family responsibilities anticipate after-work duties that will consume their time, leading to greater focus and commitment during work hours. Far from being a distraction, research shows that employees with family obligations report higher work absorption compared to single, childless employees.

A fulfilling family life can enhance work performance in various ways. For instance, family motivation boosts employees’ self-efficacy, or belief in their ability to accomplish tasks at work. Positive family events also strengthen a leader’s prosocial motivation, promoting effective leadership behaviors such as approachability and inspiration.

How Employers Can Leverage Family Motivation Given that family motivates work, organizations can benefit from integrating family into the workplace. This could involve allowing children into the office through events like “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” which provides children with career insights and fosters pride in their parents’ work, or offering on-site childcare. Employees can also personalize their workspaces with family-related items like photos, children’s drawings, or letters. Having family memorabilia at work can also reduce unethical behavior, such as inflating expense reports.

Mitigating the Risks of Family Motivation While family motivation can drive work performance, it can also lead to potential challenges. For instance, employees may stay in unfulfilling jobs to avoid disrupting their family’s stability, which can hinder personal and professional growth. Additionally, employees with high family motivation may experience increased stress and burnout. Our study in the Mexican factory found that employees with higher family motivation reported higher stress levels at work. Similarly, a study on Chinese employees noted that family motivation led to increased work pressure and reduced creativity.

Organizations must be cautious not to exploit family motivation, as it can lead to employees enduring poor working conditions or overworking. Employers have a responsibility to support employees with caregiving duties by offering stable pay, predictable schedules, and resources for mental health and well-being. Policies such as parental leave, flexible work arrangements, and designated “family and loved ones days off” can signal an employer’s support for employees’ personal relationships, leading to increased motivation and gratitude.

Employers should ensure family-motivated employees feel secure and supported. Offering benefits like savings programs, mortgage assistance, and student loan payments can alleviate financial pressures. Creating a psychologically safe environment where employees feel comfortable taking risks without fearing job loss can also encourage innovation and engagement.

In conclusion, family can be a powerful motivator for work, driving individuals to excel for the benefit of their loved ones. By recognizing and supporting this motivation, employers can foster a more engaged, productive, and satisfied workforce.


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