The Mentorist

Where Never Is Heard an Encouraging Word: Frontiers of Motivation

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Think your performance would soar, if only you heard a few more words of encouragement from your boss?  Well, the Gershwin brothers had it right:  ‘It ain’t necessarily so….’

The latest Harvard Business Review (July–August 2013) reports some eye-opening results from a study designed to measure the impact of encouragement on performance levels.

In the study, subjects were arbitrarily assigned to three groups, then asked to do two sets of ‘plank’ exercises.  (Those of you who don’t know what these are, please look in the direction of your stomach. Can you see your toes?)

Every person completed his first set of planks alone, as a study ‘control.’  For the second set, people in the first group repeated the experience of being alone, while those in the second and third groups did their planks alongside a virtual partner projected onto a screen.  In the second group, the partner performed silently, while, in the third group, he called out words of encouragement along the way.  (‘You can do it!,’ ‘ Looking good!,’ “Keep it up!,’ yadda, yadda…).

The results?  Not surprisingly, people in the two partnered-up groups did the second set of planks for longer than the group left to ‘go it alone.’  But here’s the odd bit:  The group with the silent partner did the planks 33% longer, while the group with the ‘encouraging’ partner only did them 22% longer.

What gives?  Well, according to the study’s creator, Brandon Irwin, subjects paired with the ‘cheerleading’ partner assumed the partner was directing his encouraging words at himself – and not at them.  This caused the subjects to think they were, more or less, just as competent as their virtual partner when it came to doing planks –- despite plenty of visual evidence to the contrary.

Irwin’s conclusion?  If people think they’re performing at roughly the same level as the next guy, their performance won’t improve as much as it will if they think they’re the weaker link.

This finding won’t surprise tennis players who subscribe to the adage, ‘Always play with someone better than you are.’

But here’s what I don’t get:  Why did the subjects assume the partner’s words of encouragement were self-directed, rather than aimed at them?  And, even if that assumption were true, why would it lead them to think they were as good at planks as Joe Partner?  Particularly when all they had to do was look up at that larger-than-life set of six-pack abs projected on the screen….

Irwin’s study goes on to test several variations on the ‘partner’ theme.  In one, he used a longer-term goal — five sessions on an exercise bike — and tested the impact of both partners and teams on performance.

After an initial ‘control’ round, where every person pedaled alone, subjects, again, were assigned to one of three groups.  Again, people in the first group continued to ‘go it alone,’ while those in the second and third groups were paired with a virtual partner (this time, always silent).  Confirming the plank results, subjects who exercised alongside the partner doubled their time on the bikes compared to the ‘loner’ group.

Now, the added twist:  Irwin then told people in the third group (but not the second) they were on a team where their individual performance over the five bike sessions would count toward their team’s overall score.  Hearing this, the third group of subjects tripled their time on the bikes.

In another variation of the experiments, one group of partnered-up ‘plank’ subjects was told they were being entered into a lottery for an $80 gym membership and would earn one lottery ticket for every second they held a plank.  The other partnered-up group got no monetary incentive.

The results?  People in the group competing for lottery tickets held their planks only half as long as those in the group with no monetary reward.  Irwin contends the lottery prize created an extrinsic goal that served to distract people from their intrinsic motivation to help their team.  In other words, money messed with motivation –- at least when offered as an individual reward.

So, what are the take-aways here?  Irwin says his findings need further testing in a business context to know what lessons they hold for workplace motivation.  For now, he posits the following:

  • Encouragement isn’t bad.  But leading by quiet example is better.Colored Barbell Plates
  • Managers who encourage their reports directly and specifically –- that is, by using their names and addressing their specific needs — will see greater performance improvements than those who simply spout general exhortations.  (‘You got this!’ = good.  ‘You got this because your arm is a catapult, Moon Unit!’ = better.)
  • Managers who feel they are struggling should keep that a secret from their teams.
  • Individual performance improves radically when a person belongs to a team where he feels indispensable to achieving its shared goal.  The results are even more profound if the person thinks he’s the team’s weak link.
  • The performance of someone who thinks he’s the weak link will improve more if he’s partnered with a friend rather than a stranger.  If, on the other hand, the person doesn’t suffer from a ‘weak-link’ self-image, his improvement will be the same with either type of partner.
  • Offering monetary incentives for the best individual performance on a team distracts people from their ‘all-for-one-and-one-for-all’ motivation, causing individual (as well as team) performance to suffer.

Fascinating stuff.  I’m eager to learn more.  But, right now, I’ve got to find my remote and mute Tae Bo Billy.  He’s yelling at me.

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

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