Two Simple, Scientific Approaches to Motivational Leadership

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Celebrate Accomplishments, Not Progress

Did you know that simply announcing your goals makes you less likely to achieve them?

You would assume that publically sharing your intention creates a sense of obligation to accomplish it, but studies by NYU professor Peter Gollwitzer show that this is not always the case. Humans have a strange way of patting ourselves on the back after even the slightest bit of progress towards our goal, to the point where simply announcing our objective feels like a step worth celebrating. The problem is that the act of celebrating, or even acknowledging your progress can actually undermine it.

Why does this happen? University of Chicago psychologists Ayelet Fishbach and Minjung Koo conducted several studies in which they found that “to-date” thinking, which means recognizing how far you have come in pursuit of your goal, can actually spark a sense of premature accomplishment. We’ve all been guilty of this type of thinking; whether it’s rewarding ourselves for sticking to the first few days of a diet, or feeling proud for finally getting started on a project that we’ve been putting off. This feeling of reflective achievement, even if it’s subconscious, actually diminishes our drive to finish our goal.

The challenge manifests differently for leaders. Obviously your employees can’t abandon their assignments due to a lack of motivation. However, a culture of “to-date” thinking can lead to depreciation of productivity, efficiency and creativity. Luckily, it is within your power to prevent your team from losing steam. Instead of praising them for how much they’ve accomplished so far, employ “to-go” thinking; direct their focus to their end goal, and help them plan the next steps that will help them achieve it.

While it’s important to acknowledge an employee’s achievements, Fishbach and Koo’s studies find that the majority of their praise should come after they’ve accomplished their mission. If your employee is in the middle of a tough project, consider how you can frame your encouragement around what they are going to accomplish next, and how much you believe in their ability to tackle this challenge. If their project is ongoing, break it up into achievable benchmarks so that they can celebrate milestones but are also perpetually looking ahead.

Create Something to Reach For

If you ever find yourself frustrated with the momentum of your team, your student, or even your child, remember that their stagnation may not be due to laziness. Most people actually want to do better and achieve more, but their variety of ambitions and desires causes them to lose focus.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to help people overcome the very human conditions that hamper their motivation, and to leverage the right psychological approaches to encourage follow-through. You need to make both their accomplishments and their ambitions real. Paint a picture of a goal that feels so possible, so close and so tangible they’ll want to reach out—and keep reaching—until they can touch it.



Rochelle Bailis

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