Motivating People To Perform At Their Peak
Almost all decisions, big and small, are choices between exploring new possibilities and exploiting old ones. When you explore, you select an option that’s unknown—or reexamine one that wasn’t optimal in the past to get new information about it. When you exploit, you choose something that’s yielded good results before, believing it will do so again.
Of course, the known course is safer. But if the newer, riskier one works out, chances are it will also pay off more handsomely.
Take the music industry. Every spring, industry reps descend on my hometown of Austin, Texas, to size up hundreds of bands and singer-songwriters at the SXSW conference. Those reps face a difficult decision: They can search for the next Muse, Spoon, or Arcade Fire—bands that will do just fine appealing to an established fan base. Or they can sign artists with a fresh sound and the potential to become a sensation.
If you’re their boss, you probably want them to aim big. But how do you get them to do that?
Quite a bit of research on the psychology of motivation (some of it done in my lab) examines that question. The effect is a little complicated, so let’s take a minute to walk through it:
At any given moment, an individual’s motivational state is rooted in one of two objectives: what that person wants to obtain or achieve or what he or she wants to avoid. (Columbia psychology professor Tory Higgins refers to the former state as promotion focus, the latter as prevention focus.) Salient factors in the work environment can trigger either state. Suppose an employee is working on a big project and knows he’ll get a bonus if he succeeds. That bonus on the horizon may increase his sensitivity to all potential benefits and rewards in the world. Now, say the same person has an upcoming client meeting and fears he’ll lose that client’s business. Those circumstances may shift his focus, heightening his awareness of all potential risks and punishments.
People are more likely to explore new possibilities when their motivational state is in sync with specific rewards or punishments they could receive. For example, in a positive talent-development culture, an ambitious employee is inclined to develop new skills or take on a stretch assignment to advance. In a more negative culture, someone who receives little praise and lots of critical feedback is motivated to explore new job opportunities elsewhere.
But when the motivational state doesn’t match the rewards or punishments, people tend to rely on tried-and-true approaches. If someone strives for advancement despite criticism from her manager, for example, or wants to avoid disappointing a boss who is generous with positive feedback, she’s more likely to exploit known, reliable solutions than to try something new.
To boost people’s desire to explore new options, create motivational consistency. You can do that by adjusting rewards or punishments to match the motivational state. If you’re managing a few of those music industry reps at SXSW, for instance, you might offer some desirable perk for the person who signs the freshest act. The potential for that reward will create a promotion focus that’s consistent with the fun, lively vibe at SXSW. But if your company is struggling financially, you might use consequences, not rewards, to create consistency. It won’t be pleasant in the moment, as people try to avoid those consequences, but it will increase their likelihood to explore new options.
Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently editor of the journal Cognitive Science, and consults regularly through his company Maximizing Mind. Follow him on twitter @abmarkman.