Customers Help Transformational Managers Energize Employees

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Key Points:

• Transformational or inspiring leaders that incorporate employee contact with customers improve their organization’s effectiveness.
• When followers perceive that their work has a positive impact on society, the association between contact with beneficiaries and supervisor ratings of performance strengthens.
• Giving employees information about how their work impacts its beneficiaries improves the motivational effectiveness of transformational leaders.


Transformational leaders inspire their employees through sharing their vision, confidence, optimism, core values and ideals. When their employees have direct contact with others who ultimately benefit from their work, managers’ efforts to motivate their workforce are amplified. Employee perceptions of how their work improves society strengthen this relationship.

What the Research Shows:

Two studies published in the Academy of Management Journal by Adam Grant, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, show that transformational leaders’ words and actions motivate their employees more strongly when the latter have contact with customers. In a naturally occurring experiment, Grant obtained sales performance of 71 new hires at a call center selling software to nonprofit organizations. Both number of sales and revenue after seven weeks differed significantly, but only for employees exposed to both a speech by a senior director and another speech by a beneficiary of their sales; employees that heard only one speech or none showed lower sales, not different from each other.

The second study included survey data from 329 employees and their leaders in a wide range of jobs from a government organization. Grant measured several job characteristics such as employee empowerment, relationship quality, task significance, etc., using well-accepted measures. Only when employee contact with their work beneficiaries and their leaders’ transformational style were high, did managers’ performance ratings show a significant, positive difference. Perceptions of the benefit work has on society were also higher for employees who reported working for more transformational leaders, especially if they had high contact with customers.

Why this Matters:

These two studies help managers who prefer using a transformational leadership style magnify their effectiveness as motivators for their employees (transformational leaders are those who offer a vision for the future of their organization, foster team spirit, confidence and optimism, and are explicit in identifying values and ideals for their groups). Connecting employees with individuals who ultimately benefit from their actions has a powerful effect in their performance that can be detected in measurable quantities. Top managers may receive unsolicited “Thank you” letters from customers, but the urge to share those notes with the employees that earned the acknowledgement is not always there!

Organizations that actively seek customers’ feedback are in a position to profit greatly from distributing their positive findings with line and all other employees. For example, Deere & Company and Medtronic are among the companies that welcome contact between customers and employees in an effort to foster these human connections that show such a powerful influence in their managers’ efforts. The Marriott and Hilton hotel brands also have campaigns to “catch employees doing their best” by inviting guests to provide feedback that identifies star employees by name. If your organization has one such program, ensuring that all employees—not just the best ones—receive final customers’ positive comments as directly as possible might be an inexpensive way to increase productivity and make managers’ work more effective.

These initiatives amplify transformational leaders’ efforts to a higher extent than other types of leaders that were not part of the studies (for example, some leaders are highly task oriented, with no concern for individuals’ feelings or preferences). Still, some workers might be sensitive to these interactions with customers even when their managers have other leadership styles; sharing information about how the organization’s products or services impact people’s lives may increase productivity by means of higher motivation in all kinds and levels of employees.

Use this Today:

Giving employees opportunities to connect with customers, whether internal or external to the organization, can motivate them in measurable ways, particularly when their managers have a transformational style. This should be considered a motivational tool of the highest strategic level.

Related Links:

The Evolution of Employee Opinion Surveys: The Voice of Employee as a Strategic Business Management Tool ::

How to Make the Most of Customer Feedback ::

The Power of Customer Feedback ::

Source: Grant, A. M. (2012). Leading with Meaning: Beneficiary Contact, Prosocial Impact, and the Performance Effects of Transformational Leadership. Academy of Management Journal, 55(2), 458-476.