Building high-performance cultures through THE science OF total motivation

Insights from IMPACT posted on April 19, 2019

Not many conference keynote sessions begin with a video of a toddler at play, but this was the closing session of IMPACT 2019—the unexpected is to be expected. The speaker, Neel Doshi, used the video to kick off his entertaining and thought-provoking exploration of high-performance cultures, which is the subject of the bestselling book he coauthored with Lindsay McGregor, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Doshi and McGregor are also cofounders of Vega Factor, a company that helps organizations build high-performing, adaptive cultures.

Doshi asserts that winning cultures don’t magically evolve; it’s the science of total motivation (TOMO) that creates the highest-performing employees and the most adaptive organizations.  But how do organizations create a sustainable state of TOMO?  It all starts with understanding performance and what drives it.

Defining performance

According to Doshi, there are two types of performance: tactical and adaptive.

Tactical performance is about how well you can stick to the plan, learn from the past, and create convergence.  Tactical performance is driven by strategy.

Adaptive performance—brilliantly brought to life by Doshi’s retelling of the Battle of Trafalgar—is about not sticking to the plan. It involves looking to the future and driving divergence. Adaptive performance is driven by culture.

An excessive focus on either type of performance undermines the other. The ideal state is one that optimizes both types.

Performance drivers

Engineering this ideal state requires an understanding of human motivation. Why we work determines how well we work. The motivation spectrum explains six reasons why people perform an activity and how each relates to the work itself, as well as one’s identity, values, and beliefs, and external forces.

Direct motives are most closely connected to the work itself. As a result, they typically bring about the highest levels of performance. A culture that inspires people to do their jobs for play, purpose, and potential enables the highest and most sustainable performance.

  • Play occurs when you’re engaging in an activity simply because you enjoy doing it. The work itself is its own reward. Play is the most direct and most powerful driver of high performance.
  • A step away from play, the purpose motive occurs when you do an activity because you value its outcome. You believe your work immediately matters. While the purpose motive is a powerful driver for performance, it is typically less impactful than play.
  • The potential motive occurs when you do an activity because it will eventually lead to something you believe is important. You believe your work eventually matters. The potential motive is not as powerful as play or purpose.

Indirect motives move farther away from the work itself and are often influenced by external factors. They typically result in lower levels of performance.

  • Emotional pressure.Emotional pressure is a force, such as guilt or shame, that acts on your identity to get you to do something. The work itself is no longer the reason you’re working, and consequently performance tends to suffer.
  • Economic pressure.Economic pressure leads you to do an activity to win a reward or avoid punishment. The motive is separate from the work and from your own identity and values.
  • The most indirect motive is inertia, in which your motive is so distant from the work itself that you don’t know why you are doing it. Inertia leads to the worst performance of all.

TOMO occurs when a person feels more of the direct motives (play, purpose, potential) and fewer of the indirect motives (emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia), forming the foundation of a high-performing culture.

Performance derailed

Unfortunately, many organizations accidently pursue indirect motivations in the name of performance, resulting in the three most common effects that lower TOMO and, with it, adaptive performance.

  • Distraction effect. The distraction effect occurs when individuals feel they need to solve for something other than the work, such as a performance expectation. People are trying to work adaptively, but distraction leads to worse performance.
  • Cancellation effect. When people are just checking the boxes of what’s being measured, they are no longer trying to perform adaptively.
  • Cobra effect. This occurs when people are looking for the shortest path to relieve the pressure of indirect motives. In such situations, adaptive performance is replaced by maladaptive behavior.

Doshi presented a powerful example of how all three effects have played out in some public education systems where the desire to increase performance (largely through standardized testing) has led to a high-pressure, low-TOMO focus on tactical performance only. The results include stressed-out teachers (distraction), “teaching to the test” practices (cancellation), and in some cases, widespread cheating (cobra).

Engineering a high-performance culture: Focus on the key TOMO levers

Doshi explained how TOMO can be calculated using a survey that measures how much direct and indirect motivation people feel. The sum of the indirect motives is subtracted from the sum of the direct motives (with each motive weighted differently based on its impact). TOMO can then be tracked and compared both within companies and across industries.

Based on this research, Doshi’s team has been able to define culture as “the ecosystem of processes that affect your people’s TOMO.”  In order of importance to the worker, those processes are: role design, organizational identity, career ladders, community, workforce planning, TOMO leadership, compensation, governance processes, and performance reviews.  All these factors work individually and collectively to effect TOMO.

To build high-performing cultures and increase adaptive performance, companies should actively cultivate TOMO by moving toward direct motives and away from indirect motives in each of the five elements of the operating model that govern these processes:

  • Identity
  • Structure and planning
  • Performance model
  • Leadership / how we lead
  • Talent system

Doshi demonstrated how all of these levers were reengineered to transform a no-TOMO, low-performing automobile manufacturing plant into the company’s highest-performing facility.

Doshi’s parting words urged organizations that seek high-performance cultures and the corresponding performance gains to:

  • Maximize direct motives (play, purpose, and potential) while minimizing indirect motives (emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia)
  • Optimize for both tactical and adaptable performance
  • Lead the charge to engineer this process

It was a fitting conclusion to IMPACT 2019, which continually emphasized the need to reinvent with a human focus and bring meaning to work

Stay tuned for more on these themes, and others from the 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report, in the weeks to come.

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