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Nudging Mastery — A conversation with Jordan Birnbaum.

February 17, 2021
8 min read
“The answer to virtually every question is, it depends.”
— Jordan Birnbaum

How do we learn? What can organizations do to grow their talent? And how will the pandemic change this? fassforward ran a study on remote learning to understand the story behind these questions. As part of the study, we conducted qualitative interviews with over ninety business leaders, HR professionals, learning practitioners, and academics to find out how remote learning would change.

If you would like to receive a copy of this research click HERE.

One of the most memorable was with Jordan Birnbaum, Chief Behavioral Economist at ADP.

What followed was a fascinating conversation, ranging from the way we learn to how humans acquire, build, and master skills.

Excerpts from that conversation follow.

How do I give better feedback?

GAVIN: Jordan, when I first heard you speak you mentioned a brilliant way of coaching and providing feedback, which is something people struggle with. Can you tell us more about that?

JORDAN: Framing describes how the same underlying information presented differently can lead to very different outcomes. The classic example is that a doctor can say that you have contracted an illness with a 90% survival rate or a 10% mortality rate. It’s the exact same thing but leads to very different reactions. So how we frame our feedback and coaching has everything to do with how it is received.

Now here comes an interesting fact about feedback. There is something called the “idiosyncratic rater effect” which tells us that more than 60% of feedback is attributable to the feedback provider rather than the feedback recipient. So, scientifically speaking, when you receive feedback it says more about the person giving you the feedback than it says about you.

When learning of this it’s tempting to dismiss feedback as meaningless, but more often than not, this actually makes the feedback far more valuable. Feedback provides you with a much better understanding of the people around you, and more specifically, what they need from you. Whether you are trying to learn how best to lead your team, collaborate with colleagues or please your clients, it is most productive to treat the feedback as insights into those providing it, and using those insights to become more effective in your interactions with them.

This framing of feedback is the secret ingredient to a leadership development tool we built called Compass. We realized that few would be intrinsically motivated to embrace feedback that they deemed as an indictment of their performance, but that people would readily embrace helpful insights about dealing with others. Fortunately, that still gets us to exactly where we want to be – leaders intrinsically motivated to use the feedback to alter their behavior. This is a rare instance in which scientific precision eases the emotional burden – usually, it’s the other way around.

How do I get people excited about learning?

GAVIN: Let’s talk more about the human psyche. If you lead a team or an organization, you’re trying to motivate people.  If you build a learning program, you’re trying to get people to learn. How do you do that?

JORDAN: There are many types of motivation, but they all ultimately fall into one of two camps: extrinsic motivation, and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is something that exists outside of us, often thought of as the “carrot and the stick,” or rewards and punishments. So, in the course of our jobs, extrinsic motivators include salary, bonus, commissions, perks, and promotions as well as demotions, demerits, and job loss. Intrinsic motivation is something that exists inside of us, and is best represented by the statement, “I’m doing this because I want to.”

When I first learned about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, I thought of being a college student and considered my motivation to play video games (intrinsic) vs. my motivation to read a chapter in a textbook to get good grades (extrinsic). But just to throw a little nuance in there, I then realized that I was extrinsically motivated in college, but intrinsically motivated in grad school.

Perhaps then it won’t be surprising to learn that intrinsic motivation is always more powerful than extrinsic. This explains why, generally speaking, tapping into intrinsic motivation in the workplace ought to be the ultimate goal for people leaders.

When it comes to getting people excited about learning, there are two paths to consider: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

On the extrinsic front, we could encourage people to embrace their learning as a way to seek future promotions, higher earnings, or even the status afforded with new accreditations. It could also be as simple as, “Learn this or lose your job,” which is often the best strategy when it comes to compliance training.

On the intrinsic front, we could try to tap into a subject area that the employees find inherently interesting. Or we can point out how learning this new skill will enable them to help others. Or we can try to entice learning by urging people to prove to themselves they can do it.

So, the short answer to the question of how to get people excited about learning is that there are countless answers. Because like everything in Industrial / Organizational Psychology and Behavioral Economics, context rules them all. So you have to find the right trigger for each situation.

GAVIN: If you make learning more relevant, will people care more?

JORDAN: There is no question that relevance plays a huge role in motivation. One of the universal rules in behavioral economics is to give people less to think about (to the extent possible) to help them make better decisions. So, the principle of salience is ever-present in behavioral design. We should never give people stuff to think about or learn that is not relevant to their work – it will actually hurt their performance by burning mental energy unproductively. This sounds obvious but is violated all the time.

Here’s a common example. An organization has ten leaders, three of whom are great at goal setting, seven of whom are terrible at it. Understandably the org seeks to address this by introducing a goal-setting tool or goal-setting training. The problem is when it makes all ten managers attend and/or use the tool. For those managers who are good at goal setting, this is more than a waste of time. It drains their mental energy, creates resentment, and in the case of a tool, can actually break a process that was working great.

An interesting tangent to relevance exists in motivational science, and it is known as “expectancy.” All of the following needs to be met for people to be motivated: a) they can accomplish the task if they put in the effort, b) accomplishing the task will lead to a reward, and c) that reward is something they want. Usually, learning that is irrelevant leads to a reward that is not desired, so it’s very hard to get motivated for it.

The big takeaway is to avoid one-size-fits-all in the world of learning whenever possible.

How does learning connect to engagement?

GAVIN: What about engagement? How does learning help employee engagement — especially if it’s remote.

JORDAN: Employee engagement is defined as the individual commitment to organizational success, and it matters a great deal because it is a huge predictor of discretionary effort. Not surprisingly, when discretionary effort improves, so too does every performance metric that organizations care about.

The good news is that learning powerfully contributes to employee engagement; a quarter of the top engagement contributors have to do with learning, development, and progress (Gallup Q12). People tend to be forward-looking and aspirational, so learning feeds into a basic instinct to develop for a better tomorrow. As such people tend to feel very warmly about those who support their learning, experienced both as gratitude and an instinct for reciprocation. So when an organization supports my learning and development, my commitment to the organization’s success increases, as does my discretionary effort.

I think senior leaders would do well to remember that driving learning in your organizations does more than broaden the skill set you have available to you. It also makes people try harder for your success.

How do we motivate people when they are remote?

GAVIN: Some have really taken to remote work, some haven’t. I think the worry in HR is how do I motivate, and build community when some are remote?

JORDAN: I suppose my cheeky answer is, “How do you motivate people when they are not remote?” Interestingly, I think the actual answer to that question for most leaders is, “I do it instinctively.” Because when you are with people for large parts of the day and can read their tone and body language, you often get all the info you need and are able to address it on the spot. And that approach has worked well enough up until this point of your career.

But here’s the thing – it wasn’t working as well as you think it was, because addressing motivation reactively can never approach the results when addressing motivation proactively. And now with remote work, we don’t even have the info we need to address motivation reactively.

So, the answer is to address motivation proactively – whether or not the workforce is remote. And it is worth noting that the future is looking increasingly likely to become a hybrid of remote and in-office work, which only increases the importance of systemically addressing motivation with proactive strategies.

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of different ways to address motivation proactively, and given the primary role of context in any given situation, it’s difficult to impossible to recommend one specific approach. Different situations require different strategies, and often ought to involve components from multiple strategies.

But in my study of leadership, the one theory that resonated the most with me based on my experiences as a leader is called Self-Determination Theory by Deci and Ryan. Theoretically, this approach is special because it taps into intrinsic motivation. In I/O Psychology, it is grouped within the “Needs” theories of leadership and motivation, in that it is premised on addressing fundamental human needs.

The theory tells us that if we can provide for three needs for our employees, they will become intrinsically motivated to show up to work because it is such a positive experience for them. Those three needs are autonomy, mastery, and relatedness.

Autonomy describes the freedom to determine how to accomplish your goals. It doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want. It means that when a leader assigns you a task, you get to decide how to do it. When we have that sense of autonomy, it is fulfilling a fundamental human need and gets us one-third of the way to intrinsic motivation.

Mastery describes the opportunity to demonstrate your worth. It is important that we create the chance for every person in an organization to demonstrate how they are contributing to the collective goal, and to be recognized for that contribution. People need to feel like they’re worth a damn, and when work provides for that need, we’re two-thirds of the way to intrinsic motivation.

Relatedness describes our need for connection with other people. These other people can be our bosses, colleagues, customers or communities. They can even be customers we never meet. If I work on engineering a more comfortable airplane seat, I can feel connected to all those people I’m going to help. But ultimately good relationships and connections fulfill the third human need that gets us to motivation nirvana.

If people experience autonomy, mastery, and relatedness at their job, their experience is so positive that they start showing up to work because they want to, and as you can imagine that leads to very good things.

But that leaves me with one huge piece of advice for managing remotely. It is very easy to get caught up in the destructive mindset of, “What is this person doing all day? Are they exploiting this? Could it be that they are barely working?” You can actually make yourself angry by thinking like this, but only bad things result. If ever there was a time to judge people’s performance exclusively on whether they are coming through on their deliverables, this is it. If they are, then if you find yourself wondering how they’re spending their time every day, try hard to stop yourself.

GAVIN: This has been fascinating, thank you so much.

Click HERE to receive a full copy of The How To Guide on Remote Learning.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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