The comeback kids: People are motivated by being just slightly behind
  • leadership
  • Blog post

The comeback kids: People are motivated by being just slightly behind

Want a surefire way to motivate your employees to achieve bigger and better things?

Well, then, consider research from professors at the Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious graduate business school. The study suggests that employees who see themselves as being just slightly behind — vis-a-vis either competitors or their own goals — are likely to compensate by working harder and smarter. That’s just what you want out of any motivational strategy or tactic.

The two profs, Jonah Berger and Devin Pope, based their research in part on the results of 6,572 college basketball games over a four-year period, looking at factors that motivated the players to give it their best. And they uncovered an interesting trend: Teams that trailed at halftime — by a couple of points, not a wide margin — were more likely to win than those who led halfway through the contest.

Big leads, small leads
The researchers focused on games where the halftime margin was in single digits. And they found one unsurprising and one surprising thing: 1) Teams that trailed by bigger margins ended up losing most of the time — 80% of the time for a six-point halftime differential, but 2) Teams that trailed by one point at the half won the game 51.3% of the time, well ahead of the 46% that the rest of the data predicted.


To see whether this trend applied broadly to everyday tasks as well as to athletic contests, the researchers devised an experiment involving the typing of letters on a keypad. Participants who were told partway through the experiment that they were lagging by a little ended up performing better overall than those who were given no idea how they were doing.

The researchers explained the results this way: When people see themselves as falling short, they’re likely to work harder to succeed. Hardly anybody likes to fail.

But this is the case only when people feel that they’re not too far behind, whether it’s a business competitor, a rival employee, or even a goal they’ve set for themselves. If people have the impression of being hopelessly behind, they may well give up rather than striving harder.

Taking it to the workplace
So in the employment context, what can a manager do to leverage this aspect of human psychology? A couple of things, actually:

  • Rather than encouraging employees to aim high all the time, get them to focus on goals that are just outside their current reach. Sure, there’s a place for stretch goals, but don’t overdo it.
  • When talking to employees about your organization’s competitors, concentrate on those that are doing slightly better in some aspect of business that you consider important. Don’t rub peoples noses in comparisons with competitors who are much bigger or more successful.


Of course, all of the above assumes that you’re the kind of manager who lets employees know with regularity how they’re doing. You are, aren’t you?

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