Culture First recap: The science of Total Motivation

At our recent Culture First conference, I was excited to have Lindsay McGregor present on Total Motivation (ToMo) because it demonstrates how organizations can win by creating a great place to work. ToMo is a valuable model for how to run your company in the new world of work.

What is ToMo?

ToMo stands for Total Motivation. The concept is based on research that Lindsay and Neel Doshi outline in their book Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation.  

ToMo talks about adaptive performance as an extension of tactical performance. Tactical performance is about whether you can build the widget, write the code or do the thing - it’s very transactional. Adaptive performance is about asking people to transcend their knowledge and skills and adapt to a changing situation to achieve an outcome.

Take customer service in the retail world. Historically, staff were trained to do things in a certain way. It was assumed that everything would be fine if they never went off script, but in the modern world of work it’s often necessary to go off script. Increasingly, customers have needs that we don’t expect or know about. When staff take on board the context of the situation and make the best decision, that’s adaptive performance.

The tools we used to motivate people don’t work anymore

The core idea of ToMo is that people are motivated by six factors - purpose, play, potential, inertia, economics and emotion. Organizations have traditionally driven tactical performance by using the last three levers - you’ll be rewarded economically if you work harder, for example. But the research found this type of environment limiting.

To create an environment for adaptive performance you need to optimize purpose, play and potential. When people are in a state of play they're actually more capable of performing at a higher level than when they're worried about their job, and not sure if they're going to get rewarded or just stuck in inertia.

When you view an organization through a ToMo lens many of the tools we’ve used in the past to motivate people don’t work. Yelling at people, pushing them harder and giving them monetary goals and rewards for achieving an outcome are ineffective. The research shows that these techniques aren’t necessarily going to get the best performance and it may actually send it in the opposite direction. That can be quite confronting to some people.

There are different ways organizations can win

At Culture Amp, we want to create a place that is able to adapt to the future and do more with what we have in a changing world. That’s why I’ve found ToMo and the idea of adaptive performance interesting - but it’s not the only model.

Culture is broad and there isn’t a silver bullet to win. But there's a lot of value in bringing in ideas from research and looking at our organization through different lenses. ToMo is an example of this. In a scientific way, it proves that organizations can consistently win by building their business around purpose, potential and play. Again, this research demonstrates that the idea of being a Culture First organization isn’t just soft and fluffy, it’s the way you win.

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