From the archive: A brief HR lesson from psychology

Getting people to do things is a matter of push or pull
Getting people to do things is a matter of push or pull

I am out walking around the streets of New York City today, so I am pulling this post from the archives. 
Teaching in a class the other day we were discussion motivation, getting people to do things. The next day I was reading a book called The Wisest One in the Room by Thomas Gilovich and Lee Ross. They were talking about the “push and pull of situations.”  In this discussion, they told of the research of social psychologist Kurt Lewin. It was very interesting.

Change of focus

Gilovich and Ross said that one of Lewin’s contributions to our understanding involved a simple change of focus. From that chapter:

He noted that when people try to change someone’s behavior, they typically try to give the person a push in the desired direction: they promise rewards or issue threats. They hire motivational speakers to get their employees to take more initiative; they offer their kids money to get better grades; they give impassioned speeches about the importance of eating right, avoiding wasteful spending, or practicing safe sex. When it is their own behavior they are seeking to change, they try to psych themselves up by promising themselves rewards for success or focusing on the high cost of failure. They look for inspiring role models, or simply vow to try harder…

Is this sounding familiar to any of you?
They continue with:

Sometimes this works. When motivation is the problem, finding ways to increase it can be the ticket to success. But more often than not, motivation is not the problem. Most people are already highly motivated to become healthier, wealthier, and more productive in their jobs…..In such cases, trying to amp up motivation is unlikely to do much good. A more fruitful strategy, Lewin suggested, is to identify, and then eliminate, the obstacles standing in the way of the desired behavior.


One example of what they talk about is one that many HR people would be familiar with, participation in the 401(k) plan. We all know that saving money is a good thing. Having employees working on their long-term financial health is good for everyone. Unfortunately, getting people to understand this and then act on it resulted in low participation rates. People had to opt-in to save and many could not decide so they did nothing. Participation rates went up, however, when the system was changed to make it an “opt-out” decision. People who before did nothing still did nothing but this time it was to their benefit. By making savings an opt-out decision the barrier to saving was removed and doing the “right” thing was the default.

What is the barrier?

If you are having a problem in getting participation look at the situation and try to identify the barriers that are in the way to making the right decision. If you are having problems with a particular employee don’t question their motivation, explore what the barriers may be to them being as successful as you and they would like to be. If you are trying to psych yourself up to be better at something don’t beat yourself up over your motivation, determine what the barriers are that are holding you back and remove them, thus smoothing the path to success.
I will be discussing more from this book as I read it, but in the meantime, if it sparks your interest, I have provided a link below to get it.

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