Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 123
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Keeping the Fire Alive

New understandings of motivation stimulate performance even if it's already good.

We depend upon supervisors to stimulate performance. It's their unique contribution to the lives of their employees and to the prosperity of their companies. Research has offered much guidance over the years to help them fulfill this role. The latest contribution comes from Gregory Prussia, of Seattle University, and Angelo Kinicki, of Arizona State University.

Prussia and Kinicki carried out an elaborate experiment to test the theories of one of the most celebrated social psychologists of our day, Alfred Bandura, and some of their findings confirmed Bandura's ideas, while others did not. Taken together, they've discovered some new insights that will help supervisors stimulate the performance of their employees. Here's the best of it:

We used to growl at employees and tell them to improve or else. In management terms, we'd provide negative feedback and they'd select goals reflecting increased performance and then try harder to fulfill them. Prussia and Kinicki discovered that negative feedback doesn't directly affect goals at all. It directly affects 2 other factors which ultimately have contradictory impacts on performance.

Negative comments cause people to become dissatisfied with their performance. Prussia and Kinicki's research demonstrated that increased dissatisfaction with past performance resulted in increased effort and improved performance. But negative comments also lowered people's perception of their own competence. When this occurred, they chose less ambitious goals and their performance declined.

So the trick with negative feedback is to stimulate dissatisfaction with past performance while simultaneously increasing feelings of competence. That may sound difficult, but it isn't. You need to concentrate negative comments on the performance and positive comments on the person, for example: "You have great talent at what you do, but yesterday this task wasn't carried out correctly. What happened?"

The reverse of this process also presents a challenge to supervisors - how to stimulate performance that's already good. Positive comments about past performance will cause people to become complacent and they'll relax their efforts. So the trick with strong performance is to ignore it and direct your positive comments to the people, comments that will build their confidence.

Positive comments build self confidence, and so does a successful experience, but Prussia and Kinicki also found one additional factor that builds confidence and directly improves performance. They called it vicarious experience.

Vicarious means practicing with your imagination. Vicarious experience means gaining practice at a task by imagining yourself to be carrying it out. Performers rehearse vicariously by imagining themselves on the stage performing their roles.

Prussia and Kinicki created a 7-minute video tape of people performing a task. Several times during the tape, the actors paused and explained what they were doing and pointed out things they did to enhance efficiency. This would be a vicarious experience with the task for anyone who viewed it.

They began by having everyone in their experiment practice the task, then half of the people watched the video and were given the same explanations in writing. Then they were asked to read them and to imagine themselves doing the task. The other half of the people watched a 7-minute lecture video tape on the task.

Finally, everyone did the task again, and this time their performance was carefully measured. The group that had viewed the demonstration tape improved their performance significantly more that subjects who had watched the lecture.

You could get these results too.

Here's a suggestion: Pick 5 things you'd like your employees to do differently . . . things that would improve performance if they did them, and devote an afternoon to making a tape following Prussia and Kinicki's example. You needn't limit yourself to improvements involving individuals. Your tape could demonstrate effective group-level behaviors too, like carefully coordinating contributions to a group task.

It worked for Prussia and Kinicki; it may work for you too.

Reference: Prussia, Gregory E., and Angelo J. Kinicki (1996). A Motivational Investigation of Group Effectiveness Using Social-Cognitive Theory. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81 (2), 187-198.

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