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How Leaders Can Manage The Perception Of Progress


In much of my work with leaders and organizations in various industries and disciplines, there’s a common issue that they seek help on addressing. Specifically, how do we keep employees invested in the long-term goals of our organization?

For these leaders, the question is not so much how to improve employee engagement as it is how to sustain that enthusiasm and drive over the life span of a project or change initiative where it takes months or even years to achieve a successful outcome.

While I’ve shared strategies and insights based on what successful organizations like Pixar Studios and the European Space Agency do to sustain employee motivation over a long period of time, I wanted to explore what researchers have learned to date about what keeps our motivation going for goal completion when the end point is not so clearly defined or visible.

That exploration lead to a fascinating study done by researchers at the University of Chicago which looked at how a frequent-buyer reward card offered by a local coffee shop could motivate coffee drinkers to become repeat customers.

For this experiment, the researchers created two different kinds of rewards cards where customers would be rewarded a free cup of coffee after 10 purchases. The first reward card version relied on giving customers a coffee cup-shaped stamp with every purchase. With this reward card design, the customer’s focus would be directed towards how many purchases they had made to date.

For the second reward card, 10 coffee cup images were featured on the card and in this case, the coffee cup images would be punched out with every purchase, thereby putting the customer’s focus on how many purchases were left to be made to get the free cup of coffee.

Researchers then told the study participants that they would be given cards that were started by university students who had recently graduated so these cards would be at various levels of completion.

The researchers grouped these partially completed reward cards into two groups – group 1 had only 3 coffee cup-shaped stamps or 7 slots left to be punched and was referred to as having a “low-progress condition”. Group 2 had 7 coffee cup-shaped stamps or 3 slots left to be punched and was referred to as having a “high-progress condition”.

The researchers handed out the different scenario and design reward cards to the various participants and then evaluated how motivated research participants would be to finish the reward card to get their free cup of coffee.

What the researchers found was that when the participants received a card that had 3 coffee cup-shaped stamps or 3 slots punched, the ones that got the card design that emphasized how much progress had been made so far were more motivated to finish the reward card than those who got the reward card that emphasized how many coffee cups were left to purchase to get the free cup of coffee.

Conversely, for those participants who got cards where there were 7 coffee cup-shaped stamps or 7 slots punched, the ones with the card design that emphasized how many coffee cups were left to buy to get the free cup were more motivated to get that free cup of coffee than those whose card focused on how many cups of coffee were purchased so far.

Now for those who run coffee shops or other types of stores that use these kinds of reward cards, this finding is definitely of much interest. But how does this apply to how we can become better at creating those kinds of conditions that help keep our employees motivated over the long run in achieving our shared purpose?

The answer to this question can be found in understanding what’s behind this motivation phenomenon. The researchers refer to this behaviour as the “small area hypothesis” which states that “how people monitor their progress toward goal completion influences their motivation”.

In other words, what their findings reveal is that at the beginning of a project or change initiative, the best way to tap into our motivation to accomplish a certain goal is by focusing on what we’ve achieved so far.

However, as we near the completion of our task or goal, we need to shift our focus away from what we’ve accomplished and focus instead on how much further we have to go to cross the proverbial finish line.

What this means is that as leaders, our perception of progress has to evolve in order to keep our employees motivated [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

Of course, in light of the increasing demands on our time, energy, and limited resources – not to mention the faster pace by which we need to get things done – the temptation is certainly there to stick to what worked in the past; that what kept people motivated at the beginning will keep them going to the end.

And yet, anecdotally, we all know this to be untrue. Many of us have experienced starting a new project or a new exercise/diet regimen and having that initial enthusiasm and drive to see it through. But then somewhere down the line, our motivation wanes and our interest in seeing what we started through to the end dissipates.

In our workplaces, our employees lose interest over time in bringing their best to the table and instead, relegate themselves to simply doing what’s necessary or what’s being asked of them.

This is the predicament that many leaders now find themselves in: leading a group of people who – while clearly competent – are no longer as invested in the work they do as they were when they first joined or when the project first began.

But here is where this seemingly unrelated study can help us to better understand how to engage our employees in the work they do so that they remain motivated and excited about the shared purpose that defines why we do what we do.

This study’s findings remind us that we can’t check-in every now and then to gauge employee progress and expect people to be motivated [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. Rather, what’s required is a more nuanced approach, one where we have an ongoing conversation with our employees to help provide the context behind the progress they’ve made so far.

As such, at the beginning of any project or change initiative, we do have to make sure our collective focus is on what we’ve accomplished so far; of the quick wins we’ve achieved and the lessons learned from the setbacks we’ve experienced on the way forward.

But then, there’s that tipping point, where we need to help shift our employees’ perception of progress away from what they’ve achieved so far, to how much closer they are to being successful in their collective efforts.

This study’s findings are a tangible reminder that consistent communication allows us to better understand how our employees’ needs evolve over time [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]; of what we need to be communicating to them to not only help them appreciate the value of their present contributions, but what will keep them motivated going forward as well.

Again, in light of the faster-paced, ever-changing global environment that we all have to operate within, it’s easy for us to simply keep our heads down, focusing on managing processes and tasks at the expense of paying attention to what our employees are going through – of the challenges they currently face and the opportunities they see to make things better that are going unnoticed by those in charge.

But if there’s one critical lesson we can learn from this study it’s that our job as leaders is not to motivate employees, but to understand what sustains their motivation [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. That we recognize that what our employees need to feel like they are making progress has to reflect an understanding of both where they are right now and what they need from us to keep pressing ahead despite what stands before them.

By understanding the evolving nature of how we perceive progress over the long term, leaders can ensure that they are in fact communicating a message that not only inspires their employees to continue to bring their best efforts to the table, but also how to keep their employees engaged in the long run in the shared purpose that drives their collective efforts.

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