Jack Covert Selects

Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation

October 08, 2015


Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor explain why play, purpose, and potential are the best drivers of motivation and performance, and how to build (and build upon) them in your organization.

Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation by Neel Doshi & Lindsay McGregor, HarperBusiness, 368 pages, $29.99, Hardcover, October 2015, ISBN 9780062373984

Culture. There are so many books that talk about it, but few are as well researched and focused on actual science as Primed to Perform by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor. And that is because they believe that what has previously been seen as “the magic behind great cultures is actually an elegantly simple science.”

There has been, as they describe, a shift the likes of alchemy begetting chemistry, a move from “magic” to chartable reality in the field of motivation. More simply put, there are some things that destroy performance and some that increase it.


[T]here are six basic motives behind people’s work. Play, purpose, and potential strengthen performance. Emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia weaken it. When a culture maximizes the first three and minimizes the last three, it has achieved the highest levels of a phenomenon called total motivation (also known as ToMo).

The “table of elements” of motives comes from Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan’s “self-determination theory” as laid out in their book, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. It is that text that has helped “spark the great flowering of the science of human performance” since the mid-1980s. It is far from the only reference Doshi and McGregor use in their book, but it provides its underlying framework. The first three motives the authors have come to define as “direct motives” while the latter three are “indirect motives.” That is, the first three motives are more directly connected to the work itself.


Play is the motive that is closest to the work itself, so it is the most powerful. Purpose is one step removed, so it is the second strongest. Potential is two or more steps removed from the activity, so it is third strongest.

And when you get into things like threats, inertia (or “doing it because you’ve always done it this way”), and financial rewards, you’re getting into territory that actually decreases performance over the long-term. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t pay your people well. That’s important, too, in terms employee retention, of supporting them and their families outside of work, and helping the overall economy. But while it may make people stay in a job or jump to a new one, it is not how you get the most out of them while they’re at work. If you can get people to go to work to get a sense of purpose rather than get a paycheck, you’re going to have a more highly motivated workforce. If you can get them to see their work as a form of play, you will unleash a wealth of creativity in your workforce that will be a force, a wealth of creativity that will create literal wealth.

This idea probably isn’t new to you. Perhaps you’ve read Dan Pink’s Drive; if not, the lessons it imparts have changed the overall conversation in a way that has probably touched your business in some way or another—even if it’s an indirect “telephone” game way of discussing or implementing motivations.

A great story of successful transformation comes early in the book, and documents one of the authors’ early breakthroughs in applying the science of the motive spectrum. It’s the story of a typical call center, “rows upon rows of cubicles in a space that’s big enough to hold several football fields. There’s no ping-pong table, no fully stocked kitchen, and no official corporate masseuse.”

The call center had been operating with indirect motivation—bonuses based on performance, weekly reviews, a stuffed monkey placed on the cubicle of the worker who’s had the best day. (I’m pretty sure I would actively sabotage a good day and deliberately drop to second to avoid such a silly display.) They not only had dedicated scripts to keep productivity high, they had functional specialties so they only had to focus on one task—an effort to increase efficiency. The authors made a bet with the employer that they could get the lowest performers to outperform the best just by altering their motivation. Their team included a schoolteacher that came to the company to better support his family (a sad indictment of how our society values its teachers, and another reminder that pay is important in some ways, but I digress) and the former security guard of the building. They did away with incentive compensation and increased base pay. They did away with scripts, and though they had certain rules, they were also shown where they had room to play. Instead of breaking the process into functional specialties and individual tasks that different people handled for customers throughout the process, they gave every agent their own set of customers. They had managers change the purpose they were pushing, from making specific numbers to making a difference in people’s lives and helping people in need, and they celebrated success stories in that regard instead of numbers. And…


We realized something important: the why changes the how. When people were driven by direct motives, they started doing their work differently. They went above and beyond.

The team members on the authors’ team found ways to improve their effectiveness for customers on their own, because they now had a sense of purpose to do so. And while that should be enough reason to change tack, even if numbers drop slightly:


Better yet, their performance went through the roof. At the end of the day, our team didn’t just surpass the status quo—it beat it by 200 percent. All this in an industry known for being slow to change and in a job function whose workers were traditionally treated like automatons.

The lesson from this story and so many like it, supported by the research and other references throughout Primed to Perform suggest that we should leave the carrots and sticks behind, and start “inspiring people to find play, purpose, and potential in their work.” When it comes to motivating employees, and inspiring total motivation throughout your organization, it turns out you should stop trying to change your employees and start changing the organization itself. Or, to use a great (altered) adage the authors borrow, "Don't change the player. Change the Game."


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