If you have ever had to assign an employee a new project or task, you are no doubt familiar with the look of discomfort and anxiety such assignments often provoke.
While some people may be eager to tackle a new challenge, hoping it will help them to climb the corporate ladder, many workers are really just trying to survive without committing any major screw-ups. Becoming responsible for something new and unfamiliar is understandably frightening. The odds of making a mistake increase dramatically when you are inexperienced. Small wonder that a “new” assignment is greeted with so little enthusiasm.
So how can we motivate employees to approach new responsibilities with confidence and energy? The answer is simple, though perhaps a little surprising:
Give them permission to screw-up.
I know this may not be something you are thrilled to hear, because immediately you’re probably thinking, “If my employee screws up, I’m going to be the one who pays for it.” But you needn’t worry about that, because studies show that when people feel they are allowed to make mistakes, they are significantly less likely to actually make them! Let me explain.
People approach any task with one of two types of goals: what I call be-good goals, where the focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and already know what you’re doing, and get-better goals, where the focus is on developing ability and learning to master a new skill.
The problem with be-good goals is that they tend to backfire when we are faced with something unfamiliar or difficult. We quickly start feeling that we don’t actually know what we are doing, that we lack ability, and this creates a lot of anxiety. Countless studies have shown that nothing interferes with performance quite like anxiety does – it is the productivity-killer.
Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bullet-proof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.
Just to give you an example, in one study I conducted a few years ago, I found that people in pursuit of be-good goals (i.e., trying to show how smart they already were) performed very poorly on a test of problem-solving when I made the test more difficult (either by interrupting them frequently, or by throwing in a few additional unsolvable problems).
The amazing thing was, the people who were pursuing get-better goals (i.e., who saw the test as an opportunity to learn a new problem-solving skill) were completely unaffected by any of my dirty tricks. No matter how hard I made it, these participants stayed motivated and did well.
Usually, when managers assign a new task, they emphasize how important it is for the work to be done flawlessly, no matter how challenging it might be. They make the focus all about being good, and the prospect becomes terrifying.
The irony is that the pressure from managers to be-good results in many more mistakes, and far inferior performance, than would a focus on getting-better.
How can you assign projects in a way that conveys the goal of getting-better? It’s easy, actually.
Here are the 3 steps:
Step 1: Acknowledge that the project is difficult and unfamiliar, and that you expect your employee will need some time to really get a handle on it. They may make some mistakes, and that’s ok.
Step 2: Remind your employee that you are there as a resource, to help them when they run into trouble.
Step 3: Let them know that you are confident they have what it takes to eventually master this new responsibility.
Remember, by giving your employee permission to not do everything perfectly from the start, and by acknowledging that there is a learning curve and that improvement takes time, you are taking the anxiety out of the situation. And in so doing, you are not only increasing their motivation to succeed, but also dramatically reducing the chances that any mistakes will be made at all.
Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, is a social psychologist, educational consultant, and most recently assistant professor of psychology at Lehigh University. She has received several grants from the National Science Foundation. In addition to her work as author and co-editor of the highly-regarded academic book The Psychology of Goals (Guilford, 2009), she has authored papers in her field’s most prestigious journals.