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How to motivate people when they are failing

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3 tips that managers can do to motivate failing staff.

Understanding what motivates people to behave the way they do can be difficult at the best of times.

So, how can you motivate people to work harder when they are failing? 

Recent research by Jonah Berger and Devin Pope shows how understanding peoples' emotional drive to succeed can offer surprising results.

Their research was based on studying over 1800 NBA basketball games half time results compared with the full time results.

They found teams that were only behind by 1 or 2 points at half time were significantly more likely to win. This was still the result when statistically removing the effect of whether the team had a successful coach or not.

They suggested that this motivating effect on performance happens because failing is highly motivating. 

The pair tested this idea with a simple lab task. Participants tapped two keyboard keys alternately as fast as they could for thirty seconds in a race against a partner.

Then there was a pause in which they were given false performance feedback: told they were far behind their partner, just behind, tied, just ahead, or given no feedback. The 30-second key-tapping was then repeated.

The result was striking. Those participants told they were just failing increased their effort in the second phase far more than all the other participants.

This study was then repeated but this time the researchers also measured the participants' self-efficacy - that is, the participants' belief in their ability to succeed.

The just failing benefit was again found, however, participants with self-efficacy were the ones who most increased their effort to stop themselves failing.

Failing by a whisker is highly motivating it seems, especially for those who believe they can do something about it. 

The EBW View

Developing Emotional Intelligence is about understanding how peoples' emotions and motivations impact on success. These findings have real-life implications for managers and how they should use their Emotional Intelligence to motivate their staff. 

Based on this research we have found there are 3 tips that managers can do to motivate failing staff:

  • Provide feedback about how a person is doing relative to a slightly better performer.  The key is providing a realistic benchmark for comparison that enables the employee to believe that he/she can still do better.

  • Strategically scheduling breaks when someone is failing to hit their targets should also help people focus on where they are failing and subsequently increase their effort. 

  • Develop employees' self-belief by regularly giving positive feedback on how they can improve and also reminding them of times when they have improved, when their effort has resulted in success and how that made them feel.

Following these three simple Emotional Intelligence hints when motivating staff will lead to stronger performance and ultimately success.

Berger, J., and Pope, D. (2011). Can Losing Lead to Winning? Management Science DOI: 10.1287/mnsc.1110.1328 P