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Fresh Starts and Motivation

We are a little over 1/12th of the way through 2019—how are your New Year’s resolutions coming along? One of the reasons January 1 is such a common time for new habits is the concept of the clean slate. Habits expert Gretchen Rubin recommends leveraging transitions in your life to implement new habits. Change jobs? Join a gym near your new workplace. Buy a house? Commit to quitting smoking. Get married? Establish a tradition of cooking healthy dinners together.

Of course, a clean slate is also a prime time for good habits to fall by the wayside. Perhaps you had the habit of paying bills on the two paydays each month. Now your payday switched to once a month, and the habit is no longer convenient. Maybe you had a family tradition of eating at a favorite restaurant each Tuesday, but now your child has a sports practice on Tuesday and the tradition goes by the wayside. Any change can disrupt your routines, whether they are positive or negative.

The key is to be aware of the power of the fresh start. Identify good habits you want to establish as well as the ones you want to continue and figure out how the changes in your life can help. We are creatures of convenience, and we are far more likely to choose an apple after dinner than ice cream if ice cream would require a trip to the store.

Employers sometimes offer their employees a fresh start with high hopes for improved performance. Sometimes these clean slates take the form of lateral moves or promotions, while other times they involve changes to pay for performance plans or sales bonus structures. Even natural phases of business can function as a fresh start, such as the start of a new business cycle. Often these changes do motivate employees to put more effort into their work, but just as with habit change, fresh starts have their pitfalls as well.

Hengchen Dai, a UCLA business professor who researches employee and customer motivation, is interested in the effect these resets, as she calls them, have on employees. Through field and laboratory studies, she has determined that people respond differently to these changes:

[A] fresh start on people’s performance records — what I call a “performance reset” — affected their motivation and future performance differently, depending on their past performance. Those with lower performance became more motivated and improved after their performance was reset, while stronger performers found resets demotivating.”

Low performers do better after a reset, while high performers see their results decline. Dai studied major league baseball players, noting that players traded midseason to a new league who lost their seasonal stats hit better if they were poor hitters but hit worse if they were strong hitters. This finding was replicated in laboratory tests as well. It may be that low performers are motivated by putting their past behind them, while high performers feel discouraged by the loss of a structure that worked for them.

What does this mean for a manager? If you have an under-performing employee, try a reset. Shake things up—chances are, the employee may improve. But if you have a strong employee, know that resetting things may have the unintended consequence of declining performance.

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