DUKE (US) — Seeing someone reach a goal or complete a task should inspire us to match that success, however new research indicates it can actually reduce our motivation.
“Our findings have important functional implications for the workplace,” says Grainne Fitzsimons of Duke University, co-author of the study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “In staff meetings, employees may mistake a discussion of what needs to be done for actual progress toward a goal. Similarly, one employee’s success might actually de-motivate others to work hard.
“If we are aware of this pitfall, managers can try to avoid it by making it clear that positive feedback is directed at the individual and not shared by others who didn’t take part in the success.”
In an experiment, participants observed others trying to solve a series of word puzzles, a common task used by researchers to study goal pursuit. On video monitors, some observers viewed the puzzle solvers completing a word puzzle, others never saw a puzzle being completed, while a control group didn’t view any puzzle solving at all.
All observers were then asked to complete word puzzles of their own. The researchers found observers who watched the puzzles being completed were less successful with their own puzzles than the observers who saw the incomplete puzzles or the control group.
“Our sense of indirect goal fulfillment is stronger when we observe someone else completing a goal,” says study co-author Kathleen McCulloch of Idaho State University. “This is what my colleagues and I are calling ‘vicarious goal fulfillment.’ In effect, we may transfer others’ goal fulfillment to ourselves, even though we haven’t achieved anything.
“Conversely, when we see others failing to meet a goal, our own sense of fulfillment isn’t as strong, so we might actually work harder.”
Researchers from McGill University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign contributed to the study, which was funded by grants from Idaho State University and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
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