The sweet smell of success: why, despite what we believe, performance is not driven by effort

Instead of deluding ourselves about ‘just making more of an effort’, we should now consider performance as a long-term process built on behavioural spirals, says Fabrice Cavarretta

We’ve been conditioned to think that hard work and success go hand in hand. Think Bill Gates declaring that he never took a day off in his twenties, Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that you need to spend 10,000 hours doing something to become an expert, or parents worldwide telling their children to study hard so they can do well in school and get a good job. It seems intuitive that if you make an effort, your performance will reflect that. But what does science say? In a recent paper published in Organizational Dynamics, I investigated the subtle relationship between effort and performance.

When it comes to the science of organisational behaviour, the ability for effort is not a given, nor does it even play a central role – developing motivation should take the spotlight. It can be hard to disentangle whether effort is a cause or a consequence in a given situation: does someone put in an effort because they enjoy the work and want to work with their colleagues (effort-as-a-consequence), or is it because they’re trying to achieve a certain result (effort-as-a-cause)?

Therefore, I suggest an alternative perspective: we can look at effort through a feedback loop: effort — performance — pleasure — motivation – effort. If this seems familiar, it’s because it’s akin to the mechanisms seen in other compulsive behaviours, even some that are toxic such as drug abuse, or others that are desirable such as a passion for music or a sport. Such loops are common and can explain both harmful and beneficial spirals. This conceptualisation of effort matters in particular to management and education, where leaders or educators seek to improve the performance of others.

It’s important to avoid mixing up the causality of effort, and to refrain from popular belief linking ability for effort to strong performance. In reality, one’s ability to put in an effort typically arises as a consequence of something, not as a major cause.

To accomplish something, making an effort depends more on the right time and right place, rather than being the focal point. It’s also a matter of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we believe in our abilities to accomplish something, we are more motivated, then we perform better, which feeds our belief in our abilities, and so on and so forth, leading to an ongoing cycle of effort-as-a-consequence.

In addition, exerting effort is not always something that we can do over long periods of time, as it depletes our mental resources, and our initial motivations get exhausted when we rely mostly on them. Thereafter, relying on effort-as-cause fails after a while. This phenomenon is linked to our drive for pleasure: if we can’t get a reward quickly, our brains lose interest. So how can we keep up our efforts even when the reward lies in the distant future?

The trick is to refrain from seeing effort as a cause or as a consequence, but rather as both. By seeing it this way, we can organise performance over the long term and generate an addictive loop, meaning a drive to repeat behaviours that are pleasurable by themselves. As the term ‘addictive loop’ may have negative connotations, I prefer using the phrasing ‘planning for a good trip’.

This approach counters the tendency to overestimate our ability for both making an undesired effort as well as resisting the temptation of alternative pleasurable activities. An addictive loop approach avoids those two obstacles by aiming for activities that generate pleasure, hence our desire to make an effort, hence more activities.

For example, would you say yes to being chased and beaten in the mud, on a Sunday afternoon? This is probably not desirable for most of us. Yet rugby players quite enjoy this during weekend games with their friends. To them, it represents succeeding in something difficult and belonging to a team. Here, the effort of sustaining physical pain is a consequence – of loving rugby. By building a rich relationship with the activity, rugby players have established a performance-effort loop by which they will keep working hard to feel that enjoyment again.

A systematic approach

To establish such a loop, one can follow a systematic approach: frame the activity so that you enjoy the process on the way to achieving your outcome, and then ‘enjoy the trip’. There are a few tactics to support this approach; notice that we recycle many classical self-help tricks, in order to build a performance-effort loop.

The role of leaders is to put in place a system of efforts-as-consequences, generating a spiral where outcomes get bigger and better as time goes on. Some good tricks for leaders to motivate followers in the long term include to not neglect indirect activities that create pleasure, like giving feedback and offering training sessions. Focusing only on the direct and painful activities can set people up to fail, since as mentioned earlier, it’s hard to sustain effort over long periods of time. In addition, managers will want to avoid a ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality. Accepting that tasks are ‘undesirable’ focuses people on the forced aspect, so they seek a compensatory short-term reward elsewhere. This implies a loss of motivation, which could be avoided since most tasks can be made interesting. Leaders should also grant people autonomy. When people choose and/or design their task, there’s a greater chance that the effort-performance-pleasure-effort spiral will be triggered.

Similarly, individuals can consciously organise themselves into performance-effort loops. To do so, they can apply the above tricks to themselves, and consider a few additional ones. For example, it is important for individuals to build an identity as our actions tend to align with how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. If you declare to yourself and to others that you are an entrepreneur, you are more likely to take action to launch your project. Individuals might want to make something a habit: your brain is a creature of habit, and science has therefore identified habit formation as a key for success. It also helps to break tasks down: if a large, long-term project is too overwhelming, break it into smaller tasks. This helps us enjoy the process and ‘earn’ psychological rewards along the way as we check things off our list.

One word to the wise would be to avoid forced effort. When considering a task that requires an effort, what is the harm of just pushing directly to get the task done, like by giving a reward or punishment? For example, can there be a downside to incentivising – e.g., using money — a kid to learn their times tables?

Unfortunately, the brain then perceives the task as distasteful – since one needs to be paid to do multiplications, math is not fun! Subsequently, this child is more likely to lose interest in math. Paradoxically, this tactic works in the short term, as it gets the child to learn the times tables, but results in exactly the opposite of the long-term objective, which is to become good at math. Such extrinsic motivation schemes – where effort is forced by external rewards – have been shown to lead generally to undesirable outcomes. While we can’t ignore them as short-term tactics, they only work in limited contexts, and only if properly inserted in a scheme balanced with intrinsic motivations.

Most importantly, you should plan for a good trip. Even with a wealth of management and behavioural research at our fingertips, the exact role of effort had been misread due to its complex looped relationship with performance. Our civilization cherishes effort, laying social stigma onto those who don’t seem to make enough of it, and overblown praise towards those who make a lot of it. What a misunderstanding, given that many performers expend effort mostly as a pleasure-driven consequence of contextual factors!

Instead of deluding ourselves about ‘just making more of an effort’, we should now consider performance as a long-term process built on behavioural spirals. Let us become experts at building those quasi-addictive loops where we end up appreciating every activity … even and especially those that require effort!

Fabrice Cavarretta is Professor of Leadership and Entrepreneurship at ESSEC. He teaches in master and continuing education, coordinates the doctoral seminar in entrepreneurship, and has developed intrapreneurship training. His current research focuses on leadership, managerial doctrines, and the use of AI in management. With a PhD from INSEAD and a PhD in Management Sciences from Paris-Dauphine, Cavarretta has also been a student at Ecole Polytechnique, Stanford/ENSTA, and Harvard.

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