This Is The Link Between Employee Motivation And Their Manager’s Mental State

By Stephanie Vozza  , August 23, 2017

To effectively lead and motivate employees, you don’t need charisma and a grand vision. Research from Michigan State University (MSU) found that being a successful boss was more about mind over matter.


The study, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, found that a leader’s focus, or mind-set, affects his or her own behavior, which in turn affects employees’ motivation. And the good news is that your mind-set can be changed to produce certain outcomes from workers, from creativity to loss prevention.

“Effective leadership may be based in part on a leader’s ability to recognize when a particular mental state is needed in their employees and to adapt their own mental state and their behaviors to elicit that mind-set,” says Brent Scott, MSU professor of management and study coauthor. “Part of the story here is that you don’t have to be Steve Jobs to be an effective leader. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing.”

Two Mind-Sets

Bosses who had an innovative mind-set, called promotion focus, were more likely to lead in a transformative way, eliciting an innovative mind-set among employees, while bosses with a conservative mind-set, called prevention focus, were more likely to focus on preventing mistakes, eliciting a prevention focus among workers, according to the study.

“The motivations of managers are contagious and ‘trickle down’ to their subordinates,” writes Russell Johnson, MSU associate professor of management and study coauthor. “Thus, if managers are unhappy with how their people are approaching work tasks, the managers might actually be the ones responsible for eliciting their motivation in the first place.”

Why It Happens

The reason promotion focus leaders create more innovative employees is easy to explain, says Larry Senn, chairman of Senn Delaney, a culture consulting firm.

“The central phenomenon is what is called ‘shadow of the leader,’” he says. “We are all shaped from childhood by authority figures in our lives. That begins with parents and carries on to bosses. So to create more innovative employees, leaders need to model the desired behaviors. It just so happens that promotion focus leaders naturally exhibit the right behaviors, having a growth mind-set.”


Prevention focus leaders who want to inspire employees can learn to achieve the same impact, says Senn. “The most useful tool we have found is the ‘Mood Elevator,’” he says. “Higher levels include innovative, creative, appreciative, and curious. The lower levels are dominated by judgment, self-righteousness, and worry.”

To cast a shadow of innovation, shift your mind-set by shifting your mood, says Senn. “Work on being curious versus judgmental with ideas, situations, and people,” he says. “Let go of certainty and be open to other points of view. Trust in your people more and give them more latitude. Provide appreciation for all new ideas and achievements of employees. And loosen up a bit and try more new things knowing all won’t work.”

Using Both Mind-Sets

While promotion and prevention focus are different, one type of focus isn’t always better than the other. There are times when you need a prevention focus to minimize mistakes and hone in on details.

“What’s particularly interesting is that leaders may shape or ‘prime’ their employees’ regulatory focus,” says Christopher Porter, professor of management at Indiana University Kelley School of Business. “A leader who wants to prime a promotion focus might talk about ideals, such as ideal work, ideal team, ideal performance, as opposed to painting a bleak picture of what would happen if goals are not reached or by constantly talking about employees’ responsibilities or obligations . . . A leader might prime a prevention focus by constantly monitoring their employees or teams for deviations from expectations. He or she might also frame situations as potential losses or emphasize job responsibilities, regulations, or deadlines.”

Knowing how and when to use these mind-sets can be an effective way to drive performance in your company. A sweet spot for managing may be what’s called “contingent reward behavior,” which brings in both a promotion and prevention focus–emphasizing gains and providing both positive and negative reinforcement based on performance, according to the MSU study.

“The contingent approach is quid pro quo–if you do this, I’ll give you that,” Scott writes. “It’s not sexy like transformational leadership, but it’s something that just about every manager can do because it doesn’t require you to ooze charisma.”


Successful leaders flex or fail, says Phillip Wilson, author of The Approachability Playbook: 3 Essential Habits for Thriving Leaders and Teams. “There is no one appropriate management style,” he says. “Successful leaders adjust to multiple situations and even multiple seasons in the life of an employee or the life of the company. Even during the course of one week—sometimes even one day—you may be needed one minute, but at risk of being seen as a micromanager the next.”

Situational leadership can be complicated and fails to acknowledge the reality that situations change constantly,” cautions Wilson. “It also puts leaders in the position of trying to figure out which style fits a particular person or situation,” he says. “That’s not always possible.”




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