Three Factors that Make Work Miserable

(This is the second post based on Primed to Perform by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor.)

In Primed to Perform, Doshi and McGregor make the case that any company can improve performance by increasing workers’ sense of play, purpose and potential. Unfortunately, most companies focus on extrinsic factors when they try to increase performance. And it’s a sure recipe for disaster.

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In dozens of case studies, companies that managed to increase intrinsic motivators found that their workers were happier and performed better. But when was the last time you heard your manager say: “Today, we’re going to learn how to play more at work”?

Instead, managers are trained to focus on goals, and they employ a couple of methods to get workers to perform.

The first is emotional pressure. This is classic behavioral programming: getting people to do something to avoid negative feedback. If I don’t do what I’m expected, I’ll feel guilty or ashamed. My manager or my co-workers will be disappointed; they might get angry with me. If I fail to meet expectations on a regular basis, I’ll start to feel like a loser, a failure.  These are intangible but powerful de-motivators.

For some of us, they don’t even require another party – we can create and perpetuate these feelings ourselves. When emotional pressure takes over, we’re no longer working for the work itself. We’re working to avoid these negative feelings (which may or may not stop when we start to improve.) If you’ve ever “choked” under pressure, even though you know exactly what must be done, you know how devastating this factor can be. As I write this, the Minnesota Vikings have just lost a crucial playoff game because kicker Blair Walsh missed an easy chip shot field goal that would have won the game in the last seconds of play. He broke down in tears in the locker room after the game.

Economic pressure is when you work to gain an economic boon, such as a raise, promotion or bonus, or to avoid being punished or losing your job.  Economic pressure can also occur outside the workplace when someone feels pressured by the boss to socialize or act a certain way. Dan Pink has written about what a de-motivating factor money can be; people who performed simple tasks in experiments actually got worse when they were paid to perform.  But if intrinsic motivation is present, studies have found that money won’t make much of a difference to the end result.

The third de-motivator is inertia. Inertia, is of course, the force that keeps a body at rest immobile. When a worker is suffering from inertia, he doesn’t even try to find motivation for the work he’s doing. He simply does today what he did yesterday. Students continue their classes, even though they’ve lost all interest in their major. Workers continue in the same dead-end job, even though they dislike the work and the company – and eventually, even themselves.

When these three factors increase in a workplace, performance decreases.  When play, purpose and potential increase, performance increases. They use “TOMO” as measurement of “TOtal MOtivation.”  The authors of Primed to Perform offer an online survey to measure individual or team TOMO. See how you and your job rate on the TOMO scale.

In a future post, we’ll discuss why Culture eats Strategy for lunch.



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