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Does effort guarantee performance and success?

As a young professional, it's important to understand that success is not just about working hard

Published: Mar 15, 2024 03:00:36 PM IST
Updated: Mar 15, 2024 03:10:04 PM IST

Does effort guarantee performance and success?A successful path to performance is not simply about expanding effort. Rather, it is about triggering a spiral linking effort to performance to pleasure to motivation and back to effort. Image: Shutterstock

While popular culture promotes the idea that effort is the key to success, it's essential to understand the different contexts in which it operates. Research by Professor Fabrice Cavarretta, ESSEC Business School, explores the dual nature of effort as both a cause and a consequence of success to propose an effective mechanism to help boost motivation and pleasure.
 

Beyond Hard Work

Sarah is a dedicated employee at a marketing agency. To advance in her career, she pushes herself to work long hours and taking many additional task which often she does not enjoy so much. Despite her efforts, she is passed over for a promotion in favour of a colleague who seems to put in less effort.

Upon speaking with her manager, Samantha realizes that the colleague who received the promotion focuses on a few productive stuff that she excels in and truly seems to enjoy, while Samantha had focused solely on putting more effort to the point of starting to resent her work. Samantha realized that her understanding of “effort” had been too narrow, believing that working hard and producing quality work would automatically lead to performance, hence advancement.

But effort can have different meanings in different contexts, asserts Prof. Fabrice Cavarretta in his research titled Effort is dead, long live effort. And simply working hard may not always lead to the desired outcome.

The HR school of thought states that motivation drives performance, but effort itself does not occupy a central position in scientific research, beyond the fact that it could be derived from various motivational processes. The confusion occurs as effort can be a cause of behaviour, vs. effort being a consequence of behaviour, the former being just effortful and not so productive, whereby the latter effort reflecting intrinsic motivation for the task. This confusion matters, as it may lead managers failing to properly conceptualize employees’ lack of effort. Expecting workers to expand effort can often backfire, as the typical Sarah is not actually blooming in her work, hence negatively affecting her productivity, and not even being aware of it.

Searching for the right path

A successful path to performance is therefore not simply about expanding effort. Rather, it is about triggering a spiral linking effort to performance to pleasure to motivation and back to effort. Prof. Cavarretta’s research into the question navigates three contexts in which effort typically applies: management, education, and dieting. It takes both the point of view of individuals willing to manage their own performance and that of leaders that wish to develop the performance of their teams. Cavarretta’s findings suggest that the dynamics leading to performance and success are complex and features looped processes more akin to those of addiction – here, good addiction to enjoyable and productive activities. For Cavarretta, effort has a dual nature.

Spiralling upwards – to success

One of the ways through which we can foster effort, performance, and motivation is by observing the journey of a long-term performer and noticing the compound effect of linking effort leading to performance as well as performance leading to effort, allowing the building of spiral whereby only small initial effort to aggregate into great compound results.

Achieving success in any field is not just about putting in effort as a cause. Rather, it requires a combination of indirect actions that lead to the creation of such self-sustaining spirals of effort, performance, pleasure, motivation, and more effort. When people engage in compulsive behaviours such as high level sports or music, they follow such spirals that keep them motivated and engaged.

However, building these spirals in the context of work, education, or fitness requires an architectural focus that is not provided by popular self-help advice or even motivation theories such as Edward Deci’s and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory.

To create and maintain performance spirals, individuals should be given autonomy to choose their assignments and encouraged to engage in activities that they perceive as intrinsically rewarding or pleasurable. For example, teachers can make long and complex tasks more appealing to children by structuring and presenting activities as fun, as in the case of Montessori pedagogical methods. As such, by engaging children in baking, teachers can help them understand concepts like ratios and proportions more easily and sustainably. Later, as adults, by initiating and selecting for themselves desirable activities, individuals can build and maintain self-sustaining spirals of success in areas where they want to perform.

Also read: Why some employees improve their creativity and others don't

Why effort might be toxic

Have you ever tried to stick to a strict diet or study for an important exam but ultimately failed to meet your goals? The reason behind this common phenomenon may lie in our cultural script – or what our nationality, religion, or family values might educate us to believe in – that glorifies effort-as-pain. If we associated effort with pain then, we tend to focus solely on the direct task at hand and force ourselves to expand effort, hence pain. Instead, the idea should be to focus on processes that makes us want to do more, hence delivering greater results for less pain, in a process that can be sustained to success.

Establishing such a system of positive spiral requires an indirect approach. It involves triggering pleasure and motivation that drives the activities, hence the validations, hence further natural effort. For instance, instead of forcing yourself to eat healthy, you could find joy in trying new healthy recipes or even start cooking for yourself, hence increasing the chance that quality foods become “interesting” to you.

Interesting, the effort-as-pain cultural script leads to paradoxical negative outcomes. When we focus solely on the direct task, we tend to experience stress, hoping to get quick results or fearing that we are not at the proper performance level. This defensive approach to stress leads us into accomplishing tasks requiring huge amounts of painful effort, which, in the long-term, leads to a feeling of being alienated and hopeful for something more enjoyable.

Does Effort Guarantee Performance and Success? While popular culture promotes the idea that effort is the key to success, it's essential to understand the different contexts in which it operates. Research by Professor Fabrice Cavarretta, ESSEC Business School, explores the dual nature of effort as both a cause and a consequence of success to propose an effective mechanism to help.

Moving towards sustainable success

As a young professional, it’s important to understand that success is not just about working hard. Prof. Cavarretta asserts that it’s about finding pleasure in what you do, being motivated by your performance, and using that motivation to continue putting in effort. “Remember,” states Fabrice Cavarretta, “that effort is both a cause and a consequence, and that it’s important to establish a positive loop between effort, performance, and motivation.”

To do this, you can implement strategies such as setting achievable goals, finding ways to enjoy your work, seeking feedback, and continuously learning and improving your skills. “Moreover,” says Prof. Cavarretta, “don’t be afraid to ask for help or guidance from mentors or leaders in your field. By following these strategies, you can build a sustainable path to success and fulfilment in your career.” Who knows – for the ‘typical Sarah’, disheartened when seeing her promotion opportunity taken from under her feet, there might be hope for the next time she will be actually enjoying the great work she accomplishes.


Fabrice Cavarretta is an Associate Professor of Management, ESSEC Business School.  

This article was first published in CoBS Insights.