Friday, September 10, 2010

Step Four: Identify Reasons for Perfect or Near-Perfect Group Performance

… then you shall inquire, search out, and ask diligently.

— Deuteronomy 13:14 (NKJV)

I suspect that the preceding list of group performances
has inspired many ideas for why certain actions are done
in a perfect or near-perfect manner. One reason for
having such ideas may be because I often grouped
together examples of similar motivations. Whenever
searching for explanations of perfect and near-perfect
individual or group performance, you will probably find
it helpful to start by combining examples that seem
similar to you in motivation. In this subsection, I
describe some of the common motivators that I had in
mind while preparing the list.

Let’s begin by looking for reasons that might explain
the first group of five examples. Here are some of the
common factors that I noticed about them:

• All of these situations have either been previously
experienced (such as leaving a classroom) or practiced
(such as through fire drills).
• There is some obvious, immediate benefit for those
who take the action. (Soldiers are more comfortable,
people feel more relaxed away from the apparent threat
of a nearby fire, schoolchildren do something they prefer,
football players improve their chances of playing well in
the second half, and drivers arrive sooner at where they
are headed.)
• The actions are consistent with the preferences of the
people involved. (No one is expecting them to do
something that is counter to what they like to do.)
• Those taking action are reminded of the right action by
seeing what others do.
• Authority favors the action.
• Someone has previously emphasized to each person
the right action to take.
• The information that leads to the action is
• There are potentially unpleasant consequences for not
acting in that way.

After appreciating how many influences are involved in
those five examples of where groups of children or adults
perform perfectly or near perfectly with little effort to
gain something that’s good for all concerned, you can see
why I like to use them. Even people who cannot
articulate why perfect or near-perfect performance
occurs in those circumstances will immediately
appreciate that some powerful human motivations are
at work.

You should have an easier time picking out the common
element in the second set of five examples (that begin
with driving down the correct side of the road): Here we
are simply looking at social conventions that make it
more convenient to accomplish either travel or
communication. Notice that such conventions can be
either legally required (such as on what side of the road
to drive) or informally enforced (such as how to greet
others in a friendly way).

The common element in the third set of five examples
(that includes drivers using forward gears rather than
reverse on roadways) may be a little harder to
appreciate: These examples describe ways of behaving
that allow ourselves and others to gain benefits. By not
stealing art while it’s on display, we don’t end up in jail
and the art is still available for us and others to enjoy on
another occasion. A combination of self-interest and
providing benefits for others can motivate high
performance. Notice that self-interest can be either
achieving something positive (obtaining something, such
as time with family) or avoiding something negative
(such as arrest or an accident).

Identifying the common element in the fourth set of
five examples (that contains the example of carpenters
driving nails with hammers rather than their fists)
should present few problems: The individual
advantages of behaving in a certain way are so strong
that almost everyone in a group will independently
choose to do the same thing. There’s an important lesson
here: Individual incentives, when strong enough, can
create group behavior without any group incentives.

I find the common element in the fifth set of examples
(the one that contains the example of bills being received
through the mail) to be particularly interesting: The
individual advantages to someone else of serving you
cause perfect and near-perfect performance that you
can rely on. In an organizational setting, the lesson is
that it’s very valuable to look for ways to align strong
personal motivations with the needs of those who are
served by the organization. In most cases, this
elementary lesson is ignored when designing work.
When such shortsightedness occurs, many faults and
flaws follow, almost all of which are avoidable.

The sixth set of examples (which includes firemen
responding to alarms) is actually a subset of the fifth
set, circumstances where self-motivation by the
individuals is so high that the organization doesn’t
need to provide any motivation to encourage the
performance that’s desired, even when most of the
benefit accrues to those who are served. Many
organizational leaders act on this insight by carefully
recruiting people to work who need no additional
encouragement or direction to perform in ways that
will be beneficial to all those who are supposed to be

The seventh set of examples (the one that has trainers
feeding sea lions after they perform tricks) describes how
necessities that are understood shape our responses. If
people know that nothing that they desire will happen
until a certain action occurs, they will perform the action
in order to gain future benefits. Such actions may include
things that no one is particularly eager to do. Placing the
unpleasant or unimportant tasks in a process so that they
precede something that everyone wants to occur will lead
most people to promptly do the tasks. Here is where we
have to be careful not to be unethical in using motivation
to engage people to do something that isn’t in their best
interests, as Tom Sawyer did with his friends.

The eighth set of examples (containing politicians voting
for themselves) provides straightforward
demonstrations of individuals being expected to act in
their own best interest. In many social situations, people
are encouraged to defer to others in exchange for gaining
some social esteem. Many sales-oriented businesses
operate by providing lots of incentives to make more
money. This approach is a problem when some people
may be harmed in the process (such as when
unscrupulous salespeople unload their merchandise on
people who cannot afford it and don’t know any better).

The ninth set of examples (the one about putting
enough postage on an envelope containing a passport
application) explores places where reasonable fear of
negative consequences may cause us to be careful to do
things that aren’t inherently pleasant or desirable.
(Searching visitors to a jail isn’t pleasant for anyone, but
finding yourself on the receiving end of a loaded gun
during an attempted jail break is even less desirable.)

The last set of examples simply looks at how
commercial enterprises operate: They exist to gain
customers and want to have something to provide
unless an unusual circumstance intervenes to make
that impossible (such as when gasoline rationing during
the 1970s led to some stations being unable to sell
gasoline because they couldn’t acquire any). These
situations show high motivation because owners want
to prosper, employees want to get and keep jobs, and
customers need some of what is offered. The natural
alignment of those interests can be easily disturbed so
that different parties act at cross-purposes, such as
when a gas station tries to sell the lowest quality gas at
the highest possible price, employees want to do the
least amount of work, and customers have few
alternatives to choose from.

For your convenience, here is a summary of the
motivational influences that were important for each
of these ten sets of examples:

1. Previous experience or practice; an obvious,
immediate benefit;
preferred actions; other people model ideal behavior;
authority favors the action; prior encouragement;
unambiguous information; and potentially unpleasant
consequences for not acting
2. Social conventions that make it more convenient to
accomplish either travel or communication
3. Behaving in ways that allow those taking actions and
others to gain benefits
4. Overwhelming advantages for each person acting
5. Strong individual advantages for each person acting in
ways that serve others’ interests
6. High self-motivation
7. Meaningful rewards greater than any unpleasantness
and annoying requirements
8. Simple self-interest
9. Fear of potential negative consequences
10. Commercial self-interest

As I revealed these motivations, you may have been
reminded of the kind of writing that philosophers did in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Those writers
often attempted to examine possible solutions through
considering “normal” human behavior in different
circumstances. There is much wisdom in letting people
behave as they naturally seek to do; however, there is
even greater wisdom in encouraging people to draw on
their best qualities of wanting to serve others as well as
themselves so that even more perfect results occur.
Let’s look next at how to draw on the kind of lessons I
have just shared with you to develop an ideal practice.

Copyright 2010 Donald W. Mitchell, All Rights Reserved.

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