Primed to Perform by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor


Primed to Perform by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor

Read the summary below and get the key insights in just 10 minutes!



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Consultants Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor bring together just about everything worthwhile about employee engagement, motivation and workplace performance. They offer data and evidence to support each claim and piece of advice. Their entertaining case studies inform readers throughout, illustrating the three essential “direct motivators” that every company should use to build long-term success and the three “indirect motivators” that lead to lower performance. Though this manual can be repetitive, getAbstract recommends it highly. For leaders at every level, HR professionals, compensation executives, consultants, entrepreneurs and students, this could be today’s best work about motivating performance.


In this summary, you will learn

  • How six motivators drive people at work: three that lead to high performance and three that cause low performance, and
  • How to build a culture of positive motivators while eliminating negative motivators.


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“Total Motivation”

Firms that build a culture of total motivation, fulfill a larger mission and emphasize intrinsic motivation over salary last longer and outperform their rivals. A deep cultural focus on purpose generates innovation and creativity, thus engaging both employees and customers.

“Even though many organizations rely on money to drive performance, most of us know from our personal lives that motivation is much more complicated.”

Staffers respond best to the “direct motivators” of “play, purpose and potential.” When their work stimulates and sparks their creativity, you get play, the most powerful of motivators. Then, attach meaning and mission to their work to achieve purpose. Give people work that provides a path to something they want to accomplish – potential – and their performance increases. Play ignites the greatest performance boost – then purpose, then potential.

“A culture that inspires people to do their jobs for play, purpose and potential creates the highest and most sustainable performance.”

“Indirect motivators” diminish performance. “Emotional pressure” causes people to do things for the wrong reasons. If, as a child, you played piano to please a parent, emotional pressure motivated you. As an adult, you might stay in a job because it confers status. People motivated by emotional pressure do things they don’t really want to do, but they don’t do them well. The second indirect motivator, “economic pressure” includes salaries, bonuses, and other incentives or rewards. It also includes fear of punishment. When people work mainly for money and rewards, or to avoid punishment, they tend not to perform at their best. Where people strive for recognition only, they underperform. You can’t run a business without economic incentives, recognition and rewards, but you must combine them with other motivators to drive higher performance. “Inertia” – when workers stay at a job because they can’t muster a reason to move – diminishes performance the most.

“The most powerful and the most overlooked source of total motivation is the design of a person’s role within an organization.”

From Worst to First

By focusing workers on play, purpose and potential, organizations can turn underperforming or even the worst performing employees into superstars. Consider General Motors, which operated a plant in Fremont, CA, in the early 1980s. The Fremont plant was rife with defects, absenteeism, drug abuse, violence and grievances. GM shut it down in 1981. Three years later, Toyota teamed with GM to reopen the plant. Due to union rules, they brought back almost all the workers whom GM had laid off. Toyota turned the plant into the best in the GM system in under 24 months. The plant’s productivity rivaled the best Toyota plant in Japan within three years of its reopening. Toyota applied its culture of total motivation and emphasized play, purpose and potential.

“To unlock the door to high performance, the keys of a culture must work together. This requires consistency and coordination.”

The “ToMo”

Apple, Whole Foods and Southwest Airlines appeared on “Fortune’s most admired companies” list in 2015. They also share high “Total Motivation” (ToMo) scores. The ToMo measures your company’s culture. Have your workforce take the “total motivation factor” survey at the primedtoperform website. The results will fall between 100 and -100. The more people do their jobs due to the direct motivators – work enjoyment and purpose – the higher your score. The more they work due to indirect motivators – peer pressure, prestige, money and tangible rewards – the lower your score. The same survey and calculation works for athletes, students and even marriages. In study after study, the higher an organization’s ToMo, the more likely it is to thrive.

“Unfortunately, we’re all bad at consistency and coordination.”

Up to a point, you can persuade people with coercive approaches. Whether your boss offers you $10,000 to stay all night and stack heavy boxes, or offers no bonus but threatens to fire you, you’ll probably do the work. Indirect motivators are effective, but only in the short term or for rote, repetitive tasks. Most firms now need long-term, inspired, creative performance. Whether workers are blue- or white-collar, in the call center or the operating room, they must deal with the unexpected. “Adaptive performance” matters, and if motivation derives from rewards or is driven by avoiding shame or punishment, workers falter when things don’t go according to plan.

“We treat people according to how we expect them to perform. A leader who believes in a team member acts in a way that enhances his or her total motivation.”

Money Drives Poor Performance

When researchers offer rewards to subjects to perform simple rote tasks, like typing two letters on a keyboard repeatedly, they outperform those who get lesser rewards or none. When subjects perform more complex tasks, like simple addition, the group getting the large reward significantly underperforms. This influence, the “distraction effect,” takes people’s minds off work and focuses them on rewards. Even smart people perform worse when distracted by a significant reward. In short, they choke. Rewards tamp down your normal motivations for doing a task well. When researchers offered one group a reward for halting a stopwatch at exactly five seconds and another group no reward, the no-reward group stayed engaged even during breaks. The reward group practiced half as much as the no-reward group. Similar experiments yield the same results. Under the “cancellation effect,” the reward cancels your reasons for performing and negates your interest in the challenge.

We spend weeks on performance evaluations, but very little time on culture building. We invest all sorts of energy and hiring the right people and then underestimate the influence of our culture once they arrive.”

When people lose their positive motivation, and work for pay or to avoid a negative, they focus their creativity and smarts on gaming the system. Most organizations use carrots and sticks to drive performance. Workers find shortcuts to obtain the reward or avoid the punishment. They do not focus on the behaviors that the incentive intends to encourage. For example, in the face of pressure to drive quarterly sales, salespeople may use harmful tactics such as deep discounts, high-pressure sales tactics, inflated promises, and so on. This “Cobra Effect” derives its name from the British government’s efforts in Delhi, India, in the 1800s to eradicate cobras. Indians took to raising the snakes so they could kill them and get the bounty for presenting a dead snake.

“Not a single moment in your organization is predictable. Your organization needs to adapt at every level all the time. Enter culture.”

Compensation System Design

In most cases, “pay-for-performance” schemes damage a workforce’s total motivation. Bonuses cause workers to focus on the reward, and they coerce good people into gaming the system or sabotaging their colleagues. Before you implement a pay-for-performance system, consider whether your tasks are routine and repetitive, or complex and changing. If the latter, you need adaptive performance, which performance-based rewards undermine.

“When an organization’s objective intersects with its employees’ and customers’ values, the purpose motive ignites.”

If your firm’s success relies on teamwork, or if you operate in a media-sensitive environment in which one transgression might hurt the company’s reputation, reconsider pay-for-performance. If you struggle to measure the behaviors you hope to promote or to calibrate rewards to reach your desired business goals or to motivate your employees or customers, rethink pay-for-performance. For far better results, tie pay raises and promotions to learning and acquiring skills. Try experiential rewards like travel and paid education. Cash bonuses rarely produce desired results.

“Without a compelling and convincing identity, cultures become weak and organizations become less adaptive. Performance weakens as customers lose trust.”

Microsoft lost 10 years of market share, innovation and reputation by wielding its process of “performance management” as a weapon. Microsoft motivated its people, for example, by focusing workers’ attention on forced rankings and bonuses for winners, and shame or pink slips for losers. Such systems distract people from their work and focus them on the system. Microsoft managers regularly closed ranks to shut out high performers and kept low performers on the team to protect themselves and their teammates. Luck and timing account for many successes and failures. Notice how people achieve their goals or fail. Share repeatable good practices.

“You’re most likely to lose weight – or succeed in any other endeavor – when your motive is play.”

Strategy and Culture

Strategic plans always face setbacks. Organizations with resilient, adaptive cultures prevail. They encourage people to innovate, create and adapt using play, purpose and potential. They nurture a sense of “citizenship” that encourages employees to share ideas freely, devise better processes, seek help and share common purpose by putting the organization’s success on par with their own. The life cycle of cultures makes organizations slide from openness to insularity and protectionism – which leads to decay. Fight this by having your “Chief Cultural Officer” lead a team of “fire watchers” that continually measures the health of your culture and makes adjustments.

“Play at work should not be confused with your people playing Ping Pong or foosball in the break room. For your people to feel play at work, the motive must be fueled by the work itself, not the distraction.”

How Most Organizations and Leaders Fail at Motivation

Managers default to indirect motivators because such tactics require little effort and drive short-term performance. Even managers who commit to employee engagement and tout their employees as their most important asset usually revert to indirect motivators at the first signs of trouble. Leaders succumb to “the blame bias,” the propensity to hold a person responsible – for incompetence, a character flaw, laziness, and the like – in the face of failure. Consider an Israeli Defense Force experiment. Researchers informed trainers that some of their trainees were top performers while others were average. The rankings were fictions, but those whom the experiment randomly tagged as top performers did much better than average performers. Believing the trainees were top performers, trainers looked to the system or themselves for faults when a recruit failed. Average performers remained subject to the blame bias. To combat blame bias, look for flaws in the system, not the person.

“Play occurs when you’re engaging in an activity simply because you enjoy doing it. The work itself is its own reward. Scientists describe this motive as ‘intrinsic’.”

Use the ToMo to Improve

Improve your culture by having everyone complete the Total Motivation survey. Your firm’s total score gives you a baseline. To raise your team’s ToMo, embark on such initiatives as developing managers’ skills to drive adaptive performance, designing jobs to maximize direct motivation and instilling purpose in everyone’s work. Experiment to see if scores go up or down or stay the same, depending on your actions. Manage your culture scientifically, with data, not hunches.

Leaders who attempt to control their teams with carrots and sticks generate negative ToMo scores. Those who adopt a laissez-faire, “hands-off” attitude of benign neglect get only slightly better results. Others who try everything to motivate – with all six direct and indirect motivators – equal the performance of laissez-faire managers. Leaders who proactively use direct motivators to drive adaptive performance see scores that almost triple best scores gained by other tactics.

High-ToMo leaders give their teams space to experiment – as do laissez-faire leaders – but stay highly involved, to coach, sweep away obstacles and give feedback. They remind team members of their mission while making the organization’s purpose part of the shared purpose of each team member. High-ToMo leaders align work assignments to employees’ “personal goals” and strengths. They earn trust by setting reasonable goals and by practicing honesty and transparency.

Show Impact, Encourage Creativity and Innovation

In the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor invented contemporary management. He broke jobs down into the smallest components and argued that people should specialize in doing one thing all day. Taylor got it wrong. Whether they are surgeons or assembly line workers, people perform better when they see the whole picture and understand the impact of their work.

Most companies promote people through competition. Many co-workers compete for a few jobs at each rung up the ladder. Instead of focusing on working better, people concentrate on securing promotions by looking better than their colleagues. This impedes cooperation. Worse, the career ladder usually promotes through management and executive leadership. This encourages researchers, scientists, salespeople and others to give up what they do best in favor of taking on work they may not enjoy or do well. This activates “The Peter Principle,” which says that, eventually, everyone climbs to his or her position of incompetence and stays there.

Internal competition makes people perform defensively and avoid risks. Associated economic and emotional pressures cause people to work harder to earn notice but not to work smarter. To combat this, create several career ladders. Allow experts to remain working as experts by creating prestigious and well-compensated ladders for researchers, scientists and others. When IBM realized in the 1960s that it was losing scientists to management positions, it created its “Fellows program.” Since then, almost 250 of its best researchers and scientists earned that title, and five won Nobel Prizes. Since the mid-1990s, IBM filed more patents than any other organization. Define your career ladders so everyone knows what it takes to ascend. Like IBM Fellows, the pinnacle of each ladder should offer a job at least as enticing as being CEO.

All of the components of total motivation must come together in your culture. You can’t pick and choose among its tactics; combine them, and continuously monitor and improve your culture.


About the Author

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Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor worked together at McKinsey & Company before launching Vega Factor, a consulting firm dedicated to total motivation science. Their ToMo survey is available at the primedtoperform website.


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