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How CEOs Can Stop Staff from Floundering at the Finish Line

New research suggests that even with the best intentions, front-runners often pull up short. Here's how to keep them firing on all cylinders until the job's done.

iStock-504793410-compressorWhether an athlete on a race track or a company competing for customers, leading the pack can have negative and positive impacts on employee motivation.

Early on, edging in front can be an exciting and confidence-building experience, supplying individuals with energy to push even further ahead. But it’s when the finish line’s in sight that problems can emerge. New research, soon to be published in the Journal of Personality and Psychology, has even suggested that a winners’ performance flounders late in the race.

The researchers—from Stanford, Duke and China’s Fudan universities—found that of 136 people asked to recall colors in a five-stage competition, those who believed they were ahead at a late stage spent less time memorizing.

“People who are leading underestimate the effort they need to invest, hence they relax prematurely,” Stanford assistant professor of marketing Szu-chi Huang said.

“Leaders sustain motivation by comparing front-runners’ positions to some other high standard.

In a business context, the findings suggest that it’s possible to spend a little too much time instilling a sense of pride in employees by heralding company progress, especially when they’re working toward a goal like selling more products or reducing waste.

To address the problem, the study suggests leaders sustain motivation by comparing front-runners’ positions to some other high standard. The additional point of comparison, such as their performance in a previous year’s competition or a record held in a different jurisdiction, often induces more effort.

To test the theory, the researchers invited 2,500 students from two universities to participate in a book-donation drive for a cash prize. Toward the end of the contest, some students from the leading and trailing teams also were told that their campus was performing 10% worse than their individual best year.

The participation rate of students at the leading campus that didn’t receive the extra information declined to 3.9% and they delivered an average of 1.52 books per person. Those given the prod contributed an average of 2.8 books per person and had a participation rate of 8%.


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