The Power of Play, Purpose and Potential in the Workplace
By: Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, authors of Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation (Harper Business, 2015)
There is a spectrum of reasons, or motives, for why people perform an activity. These three reasons, which we call direct motives, are directly linked to the activity (in our case, work) and drive performance.
Let’s gives these three motives a closer look, starting with play.
You’re most likely to lose weight — or succeed in any other endeavor — when your motive is play. 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.”
Play is what compels you to take up hobbies, from solving crossword puzzles to making scrapbooks to mixing music. You may find play in weight loss by experimenting with healthy recipes or seeking out new restaurants that offer healthy options. Many of us are lucky enough to find play in the workplace too, when we do what we do simply because we enjoy doing it.
Curiosity and experimentation are at the heart of play. People intrinsically enjoy learning and adapting. We instinctively seek out opportunities to play.
Some companies actively encourage their employees to play in their work. Toyota gives factory workers the opportunity to come up with and test new tools and ideas on the assembly line. W. L. Gore & Associates, Google, and a number of other companies encourage play by giving people free time or resources to explore their own ideas.
Zappos and Southwest Airlines encourage their people to treat each customer interaction as play. In each case, the organization encourages its people to indulge their curiosity — to play in the work itself.
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.
Because the play motive is created by the work itself, play is the most direct and most powerful driver of high performance.
A step away from the work itself is the purpose motive. The purpose motive occurs when you do an activity because you value the outcome of the activity (versus the activity itself). You may or may not enjoy the work you do, but you value its impact.
You may work as a nurse, for example, because you want to heal patients. You spend your career studying culture because you believe in the impact your work can have on others. Dieters may not enjoy preparing or eating healthy meals, but they deeply value their own health, an outcome of healthy eating.
You feel the purpose motive in the workplace when your values and beliefs align with the impact of the work. Apple creates products that inspire and empower its customers, a purpose that is compelling and credible. The medical devices that Medtronic makes save lives; when its engineers and technicians see their products in action, it has a powerful effect on them.
Walmart’s financial services division fueled purpose by kicking off its management meetings with a review of how much money the division had saved its customers rather than how much money Walmart had made for itself.
If a purpose doesn’t feel credible, it won’t improve your motivation. The purpose motive is one step removed from the work, because the motive isn’t the work itself but its outcome. While the purpose motive is a powerful driver of performance, the fact that it’s a step removed from the work typically makes it a less powerful motive than play.
The third motive is potential. The potential motive occurs when you find a second order outcome (versus a direct outcome) of the work that aligns with your values or beliefs. You do the work because it will eventually lead to something you believe is important, such as your personal goals.
For example, you may work as a paralegal because it will help you get into law school. You may not enjoy the day-to-day work of filing briefs (no play motive), and you may not care about helping the kinds of clients your firm represents (no purpose motive), but you continue to do the job because you want to be a public defender one day. You are working to bring about a second order outcome that you do believe in.
Dieters motivated by potential eat healthfully to achieve other things they care about — the ability to run faster on the football field, for example, or to keep up with their kids.
When a company describes a job as a good “stepping-stone,” they’re attempting to instill the potential motive. Some companies go out of their way to enhance the potential motive, offering classes that build skills or knowledge.
General Electric draws talent through its reputation as “the leadership factory” for future CEOs. The potential motive is not as powerful as play or purpose, since it relates to a second order outcome of the work, which is two (or more) steps removed from the work itself.
We call play, purpose, and potential the “direct” motives because they’re the most directly connected to the work itself. As a result, they typically result in the highest levels of performance.
If you remember only one thing from Primed to Perform, it should be that a company culture that inspires people to do their jobs for play, purpose, and potential creates the highest and most sustainable performance.
From PRIMED TO PERFORM by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor Copyright © 2015 by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor. Reprinted courtesy of HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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