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Choosing to Perform Well

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How important is choice in the performance of a task? Pat Brans emphasizes that choice plays a crucial role in getting the best results from any human being, including yourself. Whether you want to encourage your employees, or you need to stop procrastinating and finish a task you've set for yourself, choice is actually more important than reward as a motivator.

Throughout history, civilizations have had to learn the hard way that people are not machines. There are no buttons you can press to get a human being to execute a task, much less do so efficiently. You might be able to get slaves to perform menial work, but if your goal is producing higher value, forcing somebody to do what you want never results in a good return on your investment over the long haul.

What motivates people? What are the best ways to get yourself to do something? How can you get somebody else to do things for you?

The Role of Choice

Recently, motivational psychologists have come up with various models to answer these questions. Many researchers maintain that one of our basic needs is autonomy. If we feel we've freely chosen to do something, we are happy to do it, and we perform better. Experiments by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester suggest that even when subjects are forced to perform a task that is intrinsically pleasurable, they find little satisfaction in it, and they don't do a very good job. Conversely, if subjects freely choose an unpleasant task, they gain satisfaction from carrying it out, and they perform well.

It turns out that coercion doesn't just come from the outside. We force ourselves to do things out of guilt or pride, and the effect is similar to cases in which a boss applies pressure.

Still another way in which you might diminish your sense of autonomy is by doing something for a reward. If you are seduced by money to perform a job, you may not perform as well as you would if you did it for pleasure. Conversely, if the task itself is fun, and you freely choose to carry it out, you'll do it well.

Most teachers know this rule: In an educational environment, if you make a game out of learning, retention is higher. Playing is fun in and of itself. But you can't force people to play—they have to choose to do so. Have you ever heard a parent tell a kid, "You're going to have fun, whether you like it or not"? That just doesn't work.

What else happens when you lose your autonomy? According to Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University, author of Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, one of the most common causes for putting off a task is a sense of coercion. The more you feel forced to work toward a goal, the less likely you are to complete the task. Again, whether the pressure comes from a boss or from a sense of guilt or pride, the result is the same.

Threats to Choice

All of these findings are interesting, but what good are they in an environment where most of what we do seems to be out of obligation?

These days, pressure comes in many forms and from many directions. Most people have bosses telling them what to do at work. At home, family members make demands that we can't ignore. And we are bombarded daily with messages from mass media, telling us how to dress, what kind of car to drive, what sports to follow, and a variety of other requirements that impede free choice.

How can we possibly maintain a sense of autonomy amid all those pressures?

Motivating Yourself

The first step in regaining autonomy is to try hard to make the request your own. If there's no way you can do it, consider turning down the task.

Here's what I mean. When we're faced with a new idea, one of three things happens:

  • Rejection. That is, you immediately turn away the new idea.
  • Introjection. This happens when you initially accept the idea, but you don't quite digest it, and you wind up "spitting it out" later.
  • Integration. In this case, you understand the idea and can align it with your system of values. Here, you make the idea your own.

If you want to work toward a goal, a necessary first step in bringing that goal to completion in a timely manner is integrating the objective. Is this goal really aligned with who you are? The worst thing that can happen is feeling that you've "sold out."

When the activity is something you've chosen to do for a reward, spend time thinking about the reasons you want that reward. Make sure that you can truly integrate the demand—which is not a given, even though you are the source of the reward. If you can't find a way of aligning the project to your value system, that's a good argument for setting it aside and focusing your limited resources on a different goal.

If somebody else has asked you to work on an activity, try to understand what's behind the request. Ask questions, and get to the underlying need. In most cases, if you and the other person are acting in good faith, you'll find that what you are being asked to do is reasonable. Once you understand the thinking that led to it, you can take on the goal as your own.

Again, if further reflection leads you to the conclusion that the request is not in line with your personal values, you should probably turn it down right away.

Getting Others to Do Things for You

Likewise, when you need other people to do something for you, give them as much room as you can to make the choice their own. For example, Dan Packer, former CEO of Entergy New Orleans, tells me that he takes the time to explain the reasons behind what he's asking people to do. This technique doesn't always work, of course. Sometimes you just have to say, "This is what I want you to do." But that's relatively rare, says Packer. Most people will listen to the explanation of why something needs to be done, and they'll come to the same conclusion you did. Those are the people who will do the best job.

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