About to lose? How Does That Affect Motivation

Research shows prospect of imminent loss can drive effort but does it produce results?

Research shows the prospect of imminent loss can drive effort but does it produce results?

Research by Jonah Berger and Devin Pope suggests that thinking you’re about to lose a contest can drive extra effort down the home stretch. Does it actually make a difference in the result though? Yes, apparently! Cool. Good to know but how can we apply this information usefully in our lives? My thoughts on that in a moment.

Berger and Pope studied tens of thousands of basketball games but don’t worry, it’s not another sports-to-management metaphor stretched to within a tenuous millimetre of its existence. They also ran another controlled study in which contesting groups were fed different information on their performance relative to their competitors – some were set up to think they were winning, some losing, some even-stevens and some neutral for a control group. Check out their study. There’s lots of detail and its summarised far more professionally than I can manage.

So, at halftime, if you think you’re behind, you will make more effort and this will have a statistically significant impact positive impact on results generally. Let’s stretch this a bit.

OK. To apply this in our work or life, we’d have to view whatever it is we’re doing as a contest in the first place, that we had some competitors against whom our performance was being scored. If you’re OK with that (and I am much of the time), we can use that research.

OK. There needs to be a score kept. I’m always a fan of measurement where its practical, fair and timely. AND what you’re measuring is important (not just because you can measure it.) AND there isn’t that law of unintended consequences thing. If a call centre measures speed of call and nothing else, you will get a lot of “Hello..Goodbye” in quick succession. If you try and encourage a population to help reduce the rat population by offering a bounty per rat tail, expect some short-term success followed by a boom in at-home rat-farming. Beware measurement and unintended consequences.

OK. There needs to be a halftime, or at least a timeout. In this work or life situation we’re thinking about, we need to step out of the process and examine what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and how it’s going. Smart. That’s why they have halftimes and timeouts in sports. It’s not just about physical rest, although that’s a good idea too in work and life. How often are you and your people having a halftime or timeout that you constructively use for reflecting on performance, what’s working and what isn’t?

My last thought for now on imminent loss as a motivator comes from my own moderately serious basketball experience. Even now, as a try-hard old man in a semi-serious league, it’s quite obvious that in myself and others, when you’re seemingly exhausted and there’s only one minute to go and someone hits a shot that puts the game within reach, you will find reserves of energy from somewhere and often you make more than seems like your fair share of luck through hustle. Win or lose, I do recall being genuinely exhausted afterwards and it’s clearly unsustainable.

If we’re going to apply the research in our work or life outside sport and believe that overcompensating by creating a perception of being a bit behind to motivate people, it may work – in the short term or as a one-off. Try it too often you’ll foster resentment, ensure burnout and, whilst winning a game, you may lose a season.

Oh, and if you’re not going to read the full study, they do also say that being behind by miles almost always means you’re screwed.

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About Terry Williams - The Brain-Based Boss

I'm all about engaging people and helping you engage yours to influence behaviour to improve results - at work and at home. Maybe you're a manager, a salesperson, a leader, a parent, a presenter or an event organiser? You need to grab your people's attention, create some rapport, be memorable and influence behaviour change. How can we do that? I'm originally a trainer by trade, turned manager, turned comedian and partway back again. Author of 'THE GUIDE: How to kiss, get a job & other stuff you need to know', I write and speak about how to engage people, be they employees, family or yourself. How can we connect with people’s own internal motivations and help them use their own inner passions to drive towards productivity, success and happiness? And hopefully have a few laughs along the way... As a trainer facilitating learning and development in others, I find myself drawing on my own extensive business experience. I specialise in the delivery of high impact, customised training solutions for organisations that are serious about improving the performance and lives of their people.

Posted on October 19, 2011, in Behaviour, Motivating Employees, Motivation, Team Building and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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