Posted on Tuesday 12 February 2013 by Ulster Business

David Meade

Getting more out of yourself and others is easier, and cheaper, than you think, says David Meade.

In the last year I've worked in seven countries with nearly thirty different international organisations from sectors that include retail, IT, logistics, finance, banking, and manufacturing.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that, as clients, they bear no resemblance to one another. I thought so too, but I couldn't have been more wrong.

One client has 257,000 employees, and another just 12. But one question unites every single organisation I've ever dealt with – how can I motivate my teams and the individuals within them? In an increasingly competitive commercial climate, an organisation's ability to effectively motivate their troops has become an essential competency.

Without trying to sound too clichéd, motivation really is the oxygen of a successful organisation. Traditional corporate wisdom tells us that cash is king, and without a hefty salary and bonus package our operation will underperform. The truth, though, is much simpler, and often doesn't cost a single penny. So forget about McGregor's X and Y Theory, Maslow's Need Hierarchy Theory or McClelland's Motivation Theory. The truth about getting more from your team is much simpler.


One of my favourite pieces of research into performance and motivation involved ten professional ballerinas. Invited to a basketball court, they were informed that they would be taking part in a study that investigates how their skills in movement and dance would transfer to the court. A 'coach' observed all ten players shooting hoops, and divided them into two groups of five, placing all the naturally strong players together in one group, and the weaker in the other.

The stronger group was told they had a natural flair for the game, showing poise, accuracy, and confidence. The weaker team was told that the coach didn't feel confident that they possessed the key skills required to succeed on the court. The former team was applauded for their professionalism, their promise, and their ability to draw on their skills as performers. The latter team was offered damp gratitude for turning up and told that their performance was in some cases 'shocking'.

The teams were then separated to test their performance. What they didn't realise, though, was that the experimenters could care less about their natural talent or lack thereof, and that the 'coach' had never played a game of basketball or even shot a hoop in his life. In fact, the teams were divided entirely at random and the experiment was to test the impact of encouragement on groups and individuals.

With two minutes on the clock, the teams battled it out to see who achieved the highest score. The results were staggering. The team that were told they had a natural flair for the game achieved nearly 30% more hoops than their counterparts. That's without any financial incentive, bonus package, or complex system of reward. They had stellar performance because they believed they would achieve stellar performance. More importantly, repeat experiments showed that the team who perceived themselves to be weaker tried almost half as many times to score.


Last year I gathered forty students to test a lesser known phenomenon. Inviting students to place two of their own coins (one silver, one copper) on the table in front of them. They were each given a pendulum before listening to a 30 minute presentation on how – as a result of the nature of the atom alignment in the differing metals – a pendulum swings in a straight line as it's held over a silver coin, and in a circle over a copper coin.

They were shown six different videos from previous experiments where the pendulum movements were demonstrated over differing coins, before being invited to try it out themselves.

As expected, when given the opportunity to try it out with their own coins, the pendulum performed exactly as they had been told it would for over 90% of participants. Holding it in their outstretched hands, it swung in a straight line over the silver, and in a circle over the copper. It even worked when we had them cover the coins with a piece of card to obscure them from view. Participants were taken to the edge of the room and given the opportunity to share their reactions on camera. All were impressed, and one individual even commented: "I've seen a documentary on this – it's incredible!"

What they didn't realise is that the phenomenon does not exist. The entire 30 minute presentation was a work of fiction, and the six videos were of me wearing different jumpers and with my head cut out of shot. So what was going on?

The participants had no reason to believe that the phenomenon wouldn't occur. They had seen a raft of supposedly credible evidence and had been spoken to with authority by someone who really seemed to know what they were talking about. They believed it would happen and it did.


The corporate implications of these findings are huge. When your teams and individuals believe that they 'can' do something, their likelihood of making significant strides towards actually achieving that goal increases exponentially. This is, of course, not to say that their sales will double overnight by just believing it, but the evidence shows that their effort increases, they are more engaged, they try harder, and they believe in what they are doing much more passionately. These impressive results can be achieved using words only, and all without a financial cost to the manager or company.

There is one cost, though; ego. It takes an exceptionally strong and confident manager to tell an individual who they know is consistently underperforming that you believe in them, that you know they can achieve their potential, and that you want them to do so. It feels easier, and less socially awkward, to just let them get on with things as they are and hope that they improve on their own – or worse still move on.

The measure of a great organisation is not in how they lead their highest performers, but how they develop, motivate, and inspire their lowest achievers. The ball's in your court.

You can do it. I know you can.

Find out more about David's work on and follow him on twitter @davidmeadelive




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