MGR: A Scientific Approach to Building High-Performing Workplace Cultures, with Lindsay McGregor

Submitted by Katherine Tran, Research Study Assistant, Primary Care at Longwoodtran_k

“Culture” was declared by Merriam-Webster as the Word of the Year for 2014. This, to some degree, means everyone was talking about culture then. But culture has transcended mere buzzword status – it is a critical force that drives high performance in the workplace.

Lindsay McGregor, co-author of New York Times best-selling book Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation and co-founder of management consulting firm Vega Factor, has spent years investigating this force, studying and engineering cultures to help organizations perform optimally.

On February 17th, McGregor presented the big ideas behind Primed to Perform at Management Grand Rounds. She at first defined high performance, then discussed how high total motivation predicts high performance, and finally explained how to design cultures that maximize total motivation.

Defining high performance

According to McGregor, high performance requires a healthy balance of strong tactical performance and strong adaptive performance. Tactical performance refers to how well an organization can execute a plan. Tactical performance measures are quantitative, (i.e., percent of accounts successfully handled, number of cars sold, etc.), which is why they have been traditionally chosen as measures of high performance. However, tactical performance measures alone tell an incomplete story. Enter adaptive performance, which refers to how well a company can diverge from a plan. Adaptive performance requires creativity, which makes it inherently harder to quantify.

McGregor cited the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 as a historical example of how adaptive performance can be crucial for success. In the example, the British Navy Admiral Lord Nelson chose to diverge from orthodox nautical warfare strategy, teaching his team alternative combat tactics instead. Nelson trusted his men to fight however they saw fit when the time came. Given the freedom to improvise and adapt, the British navy scored a victory despite the unfavorable odds.

High total motivation leads to high performance

McGregor then discussed the idea that why we work determines how well we work. She identified six fundamental motives for working.

Three of these motives promote high performance, especially adaptive performance. We may work for…

Play, or because the work itself is inherently enjoyable.

Purpose, or because the work serves what we consider a noble or important cause.

Potential, or because the work can build skills and impart experiences important for achieving personal goals.

Three other motives for working can be destructive to high performance. We may work because of…

Emotional pressure, or because society, friends, family, or peers tell us this work is prestigious, expected of us, appropriate, etc.

Economic pressure, or because we might not meet financial goals without the work.

Inertia, or because we showed up to work yesterday (and no other reason).

To further illustrate her point, McGregor created two different environments for the audience to perform the simple task of adding decimals. In the first environment, people were asked to perform the task for their own enjoyment. People did so quietly and quickly. In the second environment, an entire row was asked to stand and then sit down only after they had finished the task. The reasons why people were adding decimals had now changed, as did the outcomes: people took longer to crunch the numbers, and they were more visibly flustered too.

Together, the six motives above combine to form the Total Motivation (ToMo) factor, a quantifiable, highly predictive measure of adaptive performance, which has been shown to be positively correlated with outcome measures like customer satisfaction, loyalty, and purchases.

Designing cultures to maximize total motivation

There’s a lot to consider when designing a culture to optimize the ToMo factor. Primed to Perform recognizes that culture encompasses more than just a mission statement and stated values. Culture also considers items like team structure and employee role design. For example, consider how your role as a Children’s employee is currently designed – how are play, purpose, and potential incorporated into your responsibilities? We can easily identify one central purpose: providing high-quality, reliable care to patients and their families. Perhaps the play and potential are also easy to identify, or maybe they aren’t. At this point, thoughtfulness and creativity in role design become incredibly important.

After a lecture full of big ideas, counterintuitive data, and compelling anecdotes, taking the first steps toward engineering a legendary culture might have seemed daunting. Fortunately, McGregor contends that diving into the science of total motivation is as simple as it gets. With any scientific approach, measurements must be made, and McGregor’s measurement tool is a simple, six-question survey. An individual can take the total motivation survey to understand their own motivations for why they work. At a management level, team leaders at Children’s can distribute a total motivation team survey. Analyzing the responses by role type, level of experience, or any other factor of interest can reveal ways the team’s culture already promotes high adaptive performance. Results might also helpfully highlight any areas for continued development.

McGregor’s work introduces an articulate vocabulary and a predictive measurement tool useful for managers and organizations. Beyond that, it also gives agency back to teams who are willing to innovate, listen, and be thoughtful. Instead of attributing iconic organizations’ success solely to good luck, good timing, or mysterious factors beyond human control, the science of total motivation gives us an actionable, quantifiable way to think about how to build legendary organizations ourselves. And that’s incredibly – some might say totally – motivating.

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