Social psychologists, as well as other types of psychologists, have studied achievement motivation for many decades. In goal directed situations, there are several ways in which someone can achieve the desired outcome: ability, effort, and luck. Success and failure also depend, of course, on the difficulty of the task being undertaken. When considered together, these 4 elements of achievement behavior provide a foundation for understanding how people succeed or fail in a variety of situations, from the world or work to learning how to play a musical instrument or how to pitch a fastball. In the years David and I have owned and operated Magnus Research Consultants, we have encountered many types of employees. There was an early employee who, despite trying hard to complete assignments (thereby expending considerable effort), made numerous mistakes, including some costly ones. Why? Because this employee, despite her efforts, lacked the ability to perform the job. We have had other employees who had the ability to complete the tasks to which they were assigned, but who displayed an absence of effort. In many ways, these employees were, in a word, lazy. In Magnus’ work, luck rarely comes into play, in that our employees, at a minimum, have to possess a college degree and above average intelligence in order to perform their work. For example, one just can’t “get lucky” when performing statistical analyses that are an integral part of our research reports. Motivational scholars have postulated that, while ability is a stable characteristic, that is, it does not vary within a person, effort is unstable, and thus, varies over time and with different tasks. Luck is also variable; sometimes, one has good luck and other times, luck can be bad. One’s achievements are also useful in predicting future success and failure, such that it is likely that success in achieving a goal will be repeated when attempting to achieve similar goals in the future. Task difficulty is measured by the ability of people to achieve the goal, with easy tasks defined as those achieved by most people and difficult tasks defined as those achieved by few people. In professional office environments, such as Magnus, the achievement orientation of employees is a critical component of our overall success in meeting the needs of our clients. Our work requires both ability and effort, in great amounts, to achieve the desired outcome: happy clients.
I clearly remember that early employee to whom Melissa referred. How could I ever forget her? She tried so hard; she really gave it her all. But, often, that was not enough. This made it difficult to manage her without deflating her sense of self. Reacting to “I tried so hard,” by pointing out her flawed actions or comments, was something that we tried to do kindly. Melissa and I knew she wanted to succeed and do a good job for Magnus, for us. But, part of her limitation was intelligence. Just like a car with a small engine, her limited education, intelligence, and knowledge put all of us in an awkward position. One time I remember cringing upon hearing what she said to a client; her remarks revealed ignorance. Other times it was errors and other deficiencies in task completion. Part of the issue is that she worked remotely, a long time ago, prior to email. We communicated by telephone and fax (remember those?). Thus, she was not easily supervised and often would not ask for help before she had made a costly mistake. And, besides the “But, I tried so hard…” reaction was the promise “I’ll never make that mistake again…” The trouble is, sometimes mistakes are permanent. Damage is done to reputation, something is broken and must be fixed/replaced. Mistakes cost money. Even “do overs” have a cost – time – time that translates to pay. And, time that takes away from the time to do other things (hopefully correctly). With employees, one wants them to make an effort; the reality is that the ability levels among employees will vary. As a manager, one must comprehend these components and try to supervise in a way that allows the employee to learn and to grow while minimizing the impact of whatever it is they lack.