How can I motivate employees to go above and beyond their job descriptions

psychology infographic

Tom Duening, Colorado Springs Business Journal

As a scholar of organizations and leadership, one of the most common questions I get from leaders is how they can motivate employees to go “above and beyond” their job descriptions.

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Problem: My employees all perform to their job descriptions, but I find it hard to motivate them to go "above and beyond." I've tried financialTom Duening, Colorado Springs Business Journal rewards, mentoring programs and team building - but I still believe we are underachieving. What else can I do as a leader to motivate higher performance?

Motivating people is one of the most important jobs of a leader of any type of organization. There are libraries full of books and research about how leaders can motivate and inspire employees to perform at their best. But the problem persists.

As a scholar of organizations and leadership, one of the most common questions I get from leaders is how they can motivate employees to go "above and beyond" their job descriptions.

Fortunately, amidst all of the research, books and articles on human motivation, we are beginning to achieve some reliable results that provide actionable prescriptions. For example, the modern science of positive psychology is focused entirely on how to help people at normal levels of functioning achieve optimal levels or what is referred to as "flourishing."

The graphic above this article highlights how positive psychology differs in focus from traditional psychology.

The graphic indicates that human psychology can be viewed as a continuum from dysfunction on the left to flourishing on the right.

Traditional psychology has been concerned with helping people with some form of dysfunction to achieve more normal levels of functioning. Most of us, including most of your employees, are operating at a functional level.

Positive psychology asks the obvious - but heretofore neglected - question: "How do we help people who are functioning at a normal level achieve optimal levels of function and performance?"

Finally, the question that is asked most often by organizational leaders is being addressed directly by the new science of positive psychology.

In fact, this approach to understanding human behavior has now been adopted by organizational scholars like me under the banner of positive organizational behavior.

I'll share a few of the most compelling findings to date that you can apply in your own organization to inspire higher levels of performance.

Barbara Fredrickson is a scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is working on what she calls the "broaden and build" theory of human development.

The broaden-and-build approach is based on the discovery that people are able to think and behave at higher levels when they are in the throes of positive emotion.

People who routinely experience positive emotions, then, are able routinely to call on greater cognitive and psychological capacities to perform at a higher level. This leads to a virtuous cycle where, little by little, the individual's capacities are transformed, enabling them both to be effective in new work domains and to achieve greater creativity and flexibility in day-to-day tasks.

Positive Psychology


There are several important things leaders can do to implement the broaden and build approach in your organization, including:

  • Appreciate the positivity ratio: The positivity ratio is based on the discovery that humans tend to focus on the negative more than the positive.
    • The key finding: To remain in a positive frame of mind, people need to hear at least three positive messages for every negative message.
    • This 3:1 positivity ratio applies at work, at home and in your personal life.
  • Be a giver: Wharton professor Adam Grant has examined the difference between givers and takers. Givers are people who do things for others without expectation of reward. Takers are those who always ask, "What's in it for me?"
    • Most people are what he calls "matchers." They try to make sure they give as much as they get. Great leaders who inspire great performance are givers.
  • Generate flow: Flow is a concept that is central to positive psychology. Mihály Csikszentmihályi at the University of Pennsylvania discovered it.
    • Flow is the positive psychological state that people feel when their talents are being challenged at levels just above their current competence. In order to achieve this, leaders need to let people learn and discover - and - yes, make mistakes - on occasion.
    • This requires leaders to inhibit their natural tendency to want to intervene and prevent mistakes. Sometimes the best action is calculated inaction.

Finally, the Positive Organizational Behavior Research Group in the College of Business has a website with a wide range of resources. The goal of the group is "applying the principles of positive psychology to the issues and challenges faced by organizations and their leaders."

Visit the site at POB Research to learn more.  

[ Tom Duening, Ph.D. ]