As I See It: The Other Motivator
August 13, 2012 Victor Rozek
With the Olympics having just concluded, a number of third-tier events will again fade into quadrennial oblivion. Sports like synchronized swimming, skeet shooting, and beach volleyball (in which scantly clad women frolic in the icy British rain) got their 15 minutes of exposure, if not fame, and will now be consigned to the devotions of small bands of loyalists. One such sport, parochially known as ping pong, has been upgraded to the more sober-sounding table tennis by serious practitioners who have transformed a basement pastime to a form of quick-twitch warfare.
I was curious about the sport because of a book I recently read by two-time Olympian, and three-time British Commonwealth champion, Matthew Syed. Normally, books with a table tennis theme would evoke the same yawns readers are now stifling, but Syed is more than a skilled paddle jockey. He is also a journalist and a graduate of Oxford, which gives him some bragging rights at least among England’s inbred elites.
His book is titled Bounce, and strictly speaking is not about table tennis, but about the science of success. It elaborates on themes developed by psychologist Anders Ericsson, ringleader of the Expert Performance Movement, and writers such as Geoff Colvin and Malcolm Gladwell who make a living debunking traditional beliefs about excellence and, in Gladwell’s case, just about everything else.
Ericsson and his colleagues studied expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf, surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, stock picking, darts and, yes, software design. The short version of what they discovered was that stars are not born, they’re made. Crediting success to genetically inherited talent is the conclusion reached by people who are not paying attention. As Gladwell notes, world-class performance in any field invariably requires 1,000 hours of practice per year for a minimum of 10 years–the 10,000 hour rule–and research into the backgrounds of highly successful people supports that finding.
If so, then there are serious implications for who we chose to hire and promote, what we value and reward, and the importance of training. Consider the traditional criteria for employment. People are hired on the basis of talent, experience, ambition, skill, professionalism, performance, expertise, intelligence, and productivity, among other virtues. Syed would dismiss them all in favor of a single attribute: effort.
His reasons are complicated, but can best be illustrated by what happened at Enron, a talent-obsessed company. Enron was a corporation that valued intelligence, recruited nothing but the nation’s top business-school talent, and, in Syed’s words, “exalted its leading lights as if they were superstars.” But that exaltation was often short-lived. Each year, a process called “rank and yank” rewarded the top 15 percent of performers (meaning money-makers) with outlandish bonuses, and frequently fired the bottom 15 percent. But by creating a culture that worshiped talent, it made a fatal mistake: it forced its employees “to look and act extraordinarily talented.”
People were promoted without “specifically relevant experience,” secure in the belief that superior talent would triumph over knowledge. The result was “a culture that exalted talent above the possibilities of personal development,” says Syed. “A culture that mocked the idea that learning can transform ability. A culture that promoted, nurtured, and ultimately entrenched the fixed mind-set.” What ultimately brought down Enron was its entrenchment. Month after month, as the company descended into the underworld of deceit and impending disaster, the terror of appearing untalented prevented people from admitting and correcting their mistakes. Those accustomed to being revered for their talent, were also accustomed to unquestioned loyalty and lavish praise. Image trumped reality. In Gladwell’s words, they were unwilling to “stand up to investors and the public and admit that they were wrong. They’d sooner lie.”
Syed argues that knowledge is far more important than talent, but acquiring knowledge requires sustained effort. Mediocrity, then, is not the product of insufficient talent, but a lack of desire to undertake the deliberate practice necessary to improve. The implication is that you should always do something you love, because if you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to become very good at anything.
When speaking of effort, Syed is specifically referring to the effort required to master instruction with an emphasis on improving skills. Such instruction should include “purposeful practice” and provide immediate feedback. Ironically, training, with a strong mentorship component, may be the most valuable investment a company can make. Yet it is often the first budget item cut during economic slumps.
Unlike other fields, the payback of sustained effort/training in a business context is exponential. In sports, for example, the benefits of purposeful practice are realized by individuals at the expense of competing athletes. The sprinter who trains harder and is able to run a little faster, wins. If all sprinters improved by the same margin, it would be a zero-sum game with no discernible advantage. But in the workplace, if everybody improved their performance by 10 percent, the benefits are spread across the company as well as the customer base. And, when the benefits include innovation, they often spill over to the larger society. In short, everybody wins.
But what is the best method of sponsoring effort? Rewards, acknowledgement, the promise of promotion, financial incentives; these have been the traditional carrots dangled in front of ambitious employees. But Syed describes another. He calls it “motivation by association,” but more accurately it should be called motivation by connection. Humans are pack animals, and the hunger for belonging, the primal need to feel connected–even if the connection is as ephemeral as “friends” on a social network–can produce startling results.
Two psychologists devised an intriguing experiment using a group of Yale undergraduates. The students were given a math puzzle to work on, but unbeknownst to them the puzzle had no solution. Accompanying the math problem was a cover letter ostensibly from a former math student who extolled the virtues of the math department, and was purportedly now teaching at the university level. Along with the cover letter came a small bio which included his age, hometown, education, and birthday. For half the undergrads, writes Syed, “the birthday was altered to match that of each individual; for the other half it was not.” Each student worked on the puzzle alone in a separate room. Amazingly, the students who believed they shared a birthday with the former grad worked a whopping 65 percent longer to solve the unsolvable problem than the students whose birthdays did not match. “They also reported significantly more positive attitudes toward math and greater optimism about their abilities.” Not even failure could dampen their enthusiasm.
The interplay between connection and effort has long been exploited by the military where bonds between soldiers inspire exceptional courage in defense of comrades. But it has hardly been explored in the workplace. Certainly it occurs unconsciously, for example, among team members working on a project. But it is virtually untapped in management ranks, where rivalry is high and employees are treated like chess pieces in the hands of aspiring grandmasters. And yet the value of connection is all around us.
Syed’s sport of table tennis requires lightening reactions. A player has less than 250 milliseconds to return a kill-shot. By contrast, a professional tennis player has about 450 milliseconds to react to a 130 mile-per-hour serve. I watch two women smashing the little white ball at each other, lunging for impossible saves, returning shots from six feet beyond the table. When the match is over, the winning player runs over to be embraced by her coach. Victory in a vacuum would be meaningless. She is seeking connection.