When you’ve got an employee on your team who’s just coasting, it’s frustrating. These are the employees you know are capable of performing at a higher level but are just phoning it in. They are comfortable being just good enough. And they’re seemingly immune to your attempts to encourage them or argue with them to do more.

With a coasting employee like this, you’ll understandably want to try threats or incentives. Or, maybe you’ll even take their attitude and figure they’re just-good-enough, so you’ve got no choice but to grudgingly leave them alone.

But, according to researchers, getting that employee to get the lead out might be easier than you think. To jumpstart a coasting employee’s internal motivation, a new study suggests you just need to show them their performance is falling behind someone else’s—but only by a little bit.

A little friendly competition fixes coasting

Research published in the Journal of Management Science analyzed 18,000 professional basketball games. The authors found that when teams are behind at halftime, they are likely to lose the game. But there’s a catch. If a team is behind by just one point at halftime, they are far more likely to win. This surprising effect was no greater for teams with more successful coaches, so the researchers hypothesized that it was pure internal motivation at play.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers conducted a study. They had participants tap two keyboard keys as quickly as they could in a “race” against a partner. Then, they received false performance feedback. The participants heard at random that they were either far behind, just behind, tied with, or just ahead of their partner. The participants who believed they were just behind their partner increased their effort in a second race far more than all of the other participants.

Putting it into practice

Suppose Jane, a design director, has a designer named Bob whose performance is lagging behind the rest of the team. He gets adequate results, so she does not want to fire him. Bob seems to know this, and has settled into his role as a just-okay performer. But, based on his performance when he first started, she knows he’s capable of producing much more. She has tried coaching him and incentivizing him, but he’s not budging.

What Jane needs to do is show Bob how he compares to other team members. Specifically, she needs to show him that he’s very close to outperforming one of them, but that he’s not quite there yet.

For example, she can say, “Bob, you’re aware that client satisfaction with your designs is averaging at 86%. What you might not be aware of is that client satisfaction with Tom’s designs is 88%, so you’re just behind him. But if clients rate your next two designs as ‘excellent,’ you’ll be at 90%. Do you think you can do that?”

According to the research, by introducing that sense of competition—and, crucially, that winning is just within his reach—Bob is far more likely to double down on his efforts to get ahead.

Source: Berger, J., Pope, D. “Can Losing Lead to Winning?” Management Science. April 1, 2011.

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