It was graduation day and the most important moment of Elizabeth’s life had arrived, the moment for which she’d spent years preparing. The dean of the Faculty was about to announce the class’ best student. Nervous, she was mentally going through her speech, she could already see the plaque engraved with her name hanging in the university corridor. Suddenly, she was awoken from her day-dream by the sound of a different name. “But, wait! I’m not the best?”. She was overcome with feelings of rage and frustration. Without this recognition, the last 5 years were down the drain.
How many times felt like all your work and effort wasn’t worth it because you didn’t reach a goal? From school through to university, we’re taught that the grades we receive at the end of the semester dictate if we have obtained the necessary knowledge to pass. How does this method of learning affect us when we have to face the professional world? Is there a reason why we encourage competitiveness between students and in ourselves?
For a long time, centuries, exams didn’t exist in the occidental world. They Originally Came From China [ESP], where the dynasty Han (206 a.C onwards) made up a complex system of tests to gain access to The General State Administration.
Incredibly competitive, these tests lasted for 3 entire days. Out of the 450 000 people that participated, only 600 succeeded and gained access . Many died of anger or exhaustion.
The question you might ask yourself is, if it required so much effort (and even to risk your life) with little possibility of passing, why in the world would they even participate? The answer (according to the historians), is for status, recognition, network and a place within the local elite.
Back in the present, we know that our lives are governed by two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. The first, refers to that which comes from inside, gives us personal satisfaction, makes us feel passionate or entertains us. For example, learning to dance bachata, baking, taking photos of landscapes and playing video games. The activity itself is the purpose.
Extrinsic motivation comes from the outside world, a reward or a punishment. For example, training for a position, working over the weekend to pay tuition fees or participating in a competition to win a prize. In this case, the activity is a means to achieve a purpose.
What I want is a result and the activity is a simple process/formality. The difference is clear, right?
Looking at it this way, you’re likely to conclude that activities in which the motivation is internal are much more pleasant, not only that, but the power of decision will positively influence your performance during these activities. The fact is that doing something that you want to do (not because someone else wants you to), is much more gratifying. Emotionally, you will be way more inclined to take part in that activity than an activity that you do out of obligation.
However, it’s important to understand that the two types of motivation can coincide and be found to a greater or lesser degree depending on the activity undertaken.
Going deeper into the educational aspect, we try to define a student’s behaviour and performance by setting goals. There are numerous studies of this topic which each author has named differently, although most divide them into two types:
Learning goals: People who follow learning goals are interested in acquiring knowledge or developing new skills, they get pleasure by doing tasks correctly and seek self realization and personal growth. The task in itself is satisfying because the student values the process of learning and failure is part of that learning process. These people attribute their success or failure to internal attributes: competence and effort. Therefore, they see intelligence as a repertoire of knowledge and abilities that can be increased with effort.
Performance or execution goals: On the other hand, people whose goals are oriented towards performance have a desire of success, they try to avoid negative judgement, they are concerned with demonstrating an ability in order to receive (from themselves or from others) a positive competence judgement and obtain recognition or reward. Here, failure is unacceptable because they tend to think that the reason for their results (good or bad) is due to something external, that they cannot change or control. They perceive intelligence as something which is stable and can be demonstrated only through their own achievements. A bad result questions their intelligence.
Traditionally, the educational system has generally been focused on the results. A qualification is almost always numerical and indicates the degree of knowledge a student has in that subject. Thus, each year the “best” students are always those with the highest qualifications/grades. Opening the doors to the most prestigious universities, universities those alumni include managers of the most influential companies. Our whole system is connected to those damned grades.
However, we’re so immersed in the grading system that we are not aware or capable of seeing the consequences it can have on future development. It’s not only professors, but also parents’ approaches which play a role here. If we make grades the main objective of students’ lives, exams become a source of stress and anxiety. Not achieving the desired results can provoke negative emotions like frustration, shame, rage or sadness, as well as low self-esteem on one side and aggressive rivalry/competition on the other.
In most cases, in the professional world, we also find ourselves in a system that provides these kinds of rewards. This starts obviously with the salary and continues with the establishment of objectives. Commissions, incentives, bonuses or promotions for reaching objectives or dismissal for not achieving the expected results. This creates a highly competitive atmosphere even between teammates and often creates tension in the workplace.
Millions of people suffer from workplace anxiety or stress and in more serious cases impostor syndrome or burnout. The desire for perfection, self-doubt, the fear of failure and the constant need to be recognized (among other characteristics) are what these cases have in common.
Do you still think that commissions are the best way to motivate a salesman? At Fuckup Nights we have developed our own best practices to focus more on process rather than results. Here some examples:
How do you think the business world would be if we all introduce these small changes? Do you believe that rewarding processes and enjoying them would make us happier at work and in our everyday lives?
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