How losing can inspire motivation

As this year’s March Madness college basketball competition comes to a close and those lucky few employees collect their winnings from the office NCAA pool, some may be saddened to know they may have picked better brackets if they would have paid attention to a recent study.

A new study out of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania examined 6,000 college basketball teams and found that teams that were slightly behind their opponent at half-time were more likely to win the game.

Wharton professors Jonah Berger and Devin Pope who conducted the survey, titled “When Losing Leads to Winning,” suggest that their findings directly tie into the workplace and how we set employee performance goals.

The researchers compare employees to basketball players in that they both will show more motivation and perform better when they are close to, but still short of, achieving a goal.

"Take any situation where someone is so close to a goal that they can almost taste it," said Berger in a recent Human Resources Executive Online article. "The fact that they're almost there makes them work harder."

Similar to the idea of setting “whisker” goals, Berger recommends that managers set milestones that are within reach of employees’ efforts. While “stretch” goals may be effective in motivating employees when confidence is high, setting smaller goals can spark an increase in performance when times are tough and confidence is waning.

"A lot of tools are used in the workforce to motivate people, such as wages, bonuses, etc. While surely these things can have motivating effects, one should not underestimate the potential importance of psychological motivation as well. This paper shows that the psychological impact of being behind by a small amount can cause significant increases in performance," said Pope.

Whether it’s on the basketball court or in the workplace, the Wharton study shows that small goals have the power to motivate. Pair those small goals with positive employee recognition for their shining accomplishments and help employees get moving on the road to success.

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