Primed to Perform

"…why do your people come to work every day? If they come to work because their organization inspires the direct motives—play, purpose, and potential—they are likely performing at their best. If the culture is dominated by indirect motives—emotional pressure, economic pressure, or inertia—their performance is likely to be much worse."

- Primed to Perform, page 18

Traditionally workplaces reward high performers with money and prestige and punish poor performers by withholding rewards. They motivate through economic and emotional pressure.  Innovative companies have discovered why people work affects how well they work. They motivate through creating opportunities for play, purpose, and potential. In Primed to Perform, Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor examine the science behind motivation. They discuss the characteristics of Total Motivation (ToMo) in individuals, managers, teams, and company cultures. And they give us a framework to create the conditions to inspire ToMo in our workplaces.

Play is the most powerful performance enhancer. Regarding work, this is freedom to experiment, contemplate, and continuously improve processes to achieve a larger objective. Purpose is the second highest motivator. People need to identify with their company’s primary objective and see how they make a difference. Potential or a person’s belief that their role within a company supports their career goals is also important but not as potent as play and purpose. Individuals may craft their jobs building their play and purpose into their work but for an organization to reach its potential those factors need to run throughout its culture.

Money is an effective activator. It might be the reason we accept a new position or promotion, but after the initial action, it doesn’t motivate us to do better work. Emotional pressure like the potential for prestigious promotions or recognition doesn’t motivate better work. Economic and emotional pressures often lead to gaming behaviors where people figure out how to get the rewards, not how to do the job better. Inertia or just showing up every day also doesn’t motivate high performance—instead it often produces free-riders who come just for the check.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Create the Conditions for High Performance

"When you’re working in a strong community, it feels safe to be vulnerable. Because you feel safe, your play and purpose are not canceled out by anxiety. A strong community reduces economic pressure by making you feel less afraid of punishment. A strong community increases your sense of purpose because the identity of the group is naturally stronger. Because you and your coworkers feel safer to share new perspectives and ideas, a strong community inspires the kind of curiosity that drives play."
- Primed to Perform, page 223

In a community, we have common values and responsibilities because of our interdependence and common goals. For a community to be healthy, its members must feel like citizens or responsible, contributing members. Doshi and McGregor explain, “Citizenship is an adaptive performance behavior. When an employee helps out another colleague in need, or advocates for the organization when they are unmonitored, the organization does better.” An organization’s culture can either inspire citizenship and build an active, supportive community or become a collective of free-riders and job-crafters.

Free-riders are people who show up for the money. They increase the size of a group but don’t increase productivity. Free-riders are created when people don’t see intrinsic meaning or value of their work, their individual contribution can’t be determined, and they don’t know the other people in the group. Without a connection to the work and our team, it’s not possible to feel like a citizen in a community. Job-crafters build their own purpose and meaning into their jobs which might motivate an individual to pursue their own agenda. For an organization to thrive there needs to be a sense that we all have the same purpose and meaning embedded in the company’s culture.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Set Effective Goals

"Academic researchers have found that tactical performance goals focus people on just the appearance of competence. Adaptive goals focus people on becoming competent."
- Primed to Perform, page 139

A tactical performance goal is requiring workers to achieve a metric the organization has set to measure performance. An adaptive goal is asking employees to test new strategies regardless of the outcome to discover the best way to reach company objectives. Another type of goal is an effort goal where the only direction is, “Do your best.” While encouraging good performance is important, it doesn’t offer guidance like tactical and adaptive goals.

We need both tactical and adaptive goals. Metrics are often useful in structuring and measuring progress, but they can be misleading when workers game the system to reap the rewards by achieving metric goals at the cost of doing good work. By incorporating adaptive goals workers focus on the work itself and collaborate. While working on adaptive goals, people develop a sense of purpose and community, and they see how their work is important. Adaptive goals promote citizenship, workers help others and achieve larger goals. Adaptive company culture is the driver behind many successful organizations.

The best managers clarify what good performance looks like, acknowledge both tactical and adaptive performance, and create conditions so workers can identify whether or not they are meeting performance criteria. They foster play by empowering their teams with adaptive goals, they set a clear vision to create a common purpose, and they promote individual potential with training, coaching, and by supporting career goals.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Set Effective Motivators

"Instead of doing the work for play, purpose, or potential, you’re now doing the work for a big reward (economic pressure) or to avoid feeling like a loser (emotional pressure). The people most capable of doing the work may feel the greatest emotional pressure, reducing their total motivation even more. Of course, all this leads to worse adaptive performance."
- Primed to Perform, page 194

Economic and emotional pressures are compelling. We work hard to avoid pain. We need money to maintain basic needs or have the things we want and expect. Not having enough money can be very painful. Many people take pride in their work and consider themselves highly skilled at their craft. They may be miserable because they need to compromise quality and values to meet quotas. Having our work devalued, losing recognition or respect can also be very painful. It’s not surprising that when we are trying to avoid pain, our motivation drops.

The stress and anxiety from economic and emotional pressure cancel out the effects of positive motivators play, purpose and potential. We focus on attaining financial and emotional goals to get our needs satisfied, and we can’t relax and settle into productive work. By paying employees a fair wage and eliminating economic incentives for meeting metrics we encourage honest work. We can take that a step further and recognize workers not just for achieving metrics but also for progress toward adaptive goals and value skills over performance. Now we’ve created the conditions where people are motivated by the work.

Often in established organizations, the company’s culture has become rigid. Replacing traditional economic and emotional incentives with motivators of play, purpose, and potential may be challenging. An organization needs to adapt continually. Introducing a few new practices might start a positive culture-shifting trend. What can you do to influence change?

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Ingrid Urgolites

ABOUT Ingrid Urgolites

I work for Citigroup in operations. I have a varied background, and I enjoy service-oriented work. In addition to business, I have a keen interest in food and nutrition, and I have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life...
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