Research says less stick, more carrot will improve performance and get you to your goals.
I used tell myself that I was going to fail every test that I was about to take.
That the A’s that I had received to that point were a fluke. And given my poor study habits and the fact that I wasn’t as smart as Dave or Jen, I was lucky that I got into college at all.
I thought that was the only way to motivate myself to study, to work hard, to do well.
In my mind, if I gave myself one ounce of credit or one vote of confidence in my abilities. I would become lazy and complacent and sit on my couch in my pajamas eating chocolate and watching Quantum Leap all day (this was the 1990's). And that was one step away from carrying all my worldly possessions tied up in a hankerchief at the end of a stick as I wandered down a dirt road. In my mind, I was one step away from falling off the cliff, all the time.
And don’t get me started on what I’d tell myself if I actually did perform in a way that was less than perfect. It was absolute proof of my lack of abilities.
It was a rough way to go through life.
But it was the only way I knew how to get stuff done.
A few things changed for me, over time. Parenting, for one. I didn’t want to bully my kids into performing, the way I bullied myself. So I had to seek out another path.
But there is another experience that has opened my eyes in the past few years.I have worked with a variety of entrepreneurs and small business owners. Many of whom have one thing in common — they are incredible dreamers and visionaries. But they often struggle with the details, with scheduling, with shiny object syndrome. My clients ary motivated to run the businesses that they dreamed up. But they don’t always have the tools or skill set to manage the details or execute on their vision.
And boy do they beat themselves up about it. I hear relentless self criticism from these entrepreneurs. About how they are bad at managing time. How they are ruining their businesses. How they are one step away from sending their families into poverty.
It’s clear to me that self flagellation makes entrepreneurs procrastinate and avoid these tasks even more. Because who wants to spend time on something that they believe they can’t do? When they see failure as a forgone conclusion? When the voice in your head tells you that you’re terrible and wrong any time you go near a task, eventually, you avoid the task altogether.
The stick only works for so long. And then all you want to do is run away from the hand that beats you, whether it’s yours or someone else’s.
Studies Show That Believing In Yourself Leads To Better Performance
So in my attempt to understand a different road, I did what I always do — research. I was curious if using supportive self talk to achieve goals was actually helpful. Or if it feels so much better that you care less.
First I found Dr. Albert Bandura, a National Medal of Science winner and Professor Emeritus at Stanford.
He developed a psychological term called self-efficacy. He defines it as:
people’s judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances
In other words, believing in yourself. It’s the act of telling yourself that you have the ability to get an A or complete a task. That your ability is there, even if you’ve never done it before or you’ve slipped up in the past.
So, they have a psychological term for believing in yourself. How does that relate to performance?
Then I found a fascinating and still extremely relevant meta-analysis performed by Alec Stajkovic. He is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at University of Wisconsin. His study analyzed the results of 21 studies with over 21,000 participants. The intention was to see if there is a correlation between work performance and self-efficacy. What he found was:
Overall, self-efficacy was found to be positively and strongly related to work-related performance.
The more the individual believed in their abilities, the better their performance. There was a direct link.
In other words, beating yourself up is only holding you back. The research shows that a powerful way to improve performance and reach your goals is to believe in yourself.
(And if you’re interested, read the article. They have eight powerful suggestions at the end about how to create a more effective work environment).
But is that really “carrot” and “stick”?
I might have misappropriated the use of “carrot and stick” in this context. Carrot usually means a reward for work well done. And technically, believing in yourself or having self compassion is not considered a reward. At least not what I’ve read from the research literature.
But it is to me.
The utter relief and comfort that I feel from positive self talk. From allowing myself to say hey, I have the ability to do this. Or, you don’t know how to do this but I trust that you can figure it out. From motivating myself with support instead of punishment. Switching from beating myself up to believing in myself is the ultimate reward. The ultimate carrot. It is more rewarding than any grade I ever received, any bonus I was awarded on Wall Street.
It has also become one of the biggest motivators I’ve ever had. Instead of running away from the hankerchief-stick-dirt road scenario. Now, I believe that I can take on new challenges. That I can help people. That I can achieve, if that is what I choose.
So whatever you’re beating yourself up about today. That you did a crap job. That you’ll never reach that goal. That your performance in the office is lacking. Try practicing one thought that is more carrot, less stick.
It’s possible that I can figure out how to manage my time today.
I’ve gotten A’s before, so I might not fail tomorrow’s test.
I am not always bad at my job.
You don’t have to start with rainbows and unicorns. Those are hard to believe in. But can you believe it’s possible that you are not about to fall off the cliff? That you are two steps away instead of one? Start there. And keep inching away from the edge, little by little. You’ll feel better, but you’ll also do better.
And the next thing you know, you’ll procrastinate a little less. Follow your schedule a little more. And be proud of what you achieve.
What better reward is there than that?