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When Performance Drops: How to Help Your Team Discern Their Motivational Outlook

Jason Diamond Arnold

March 14, 2019

“When you look at people who are successful, you will find that they aren't the people who are motivated, but have consistency in their motivation.”

— Arsene Wenger

Earlier this year, The Golden State Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr, became one of the only coaches in the National Basketball Association (NBA) history to coach 5 All-Stars from the previous season, during a professional basketball game. However, even with those 5 All-Stars playing consistently every game for the past month and a half, the two-time defending NBA champions are struggling, and Steve Kerr is concerned about his team heading into the playoffs next month.

“Frustrated,” Kerr recently said to a reporter (Bay Area New Group). “Frustrated with our play and with ourselves and our approach. We all feel it.”

After quickly taking care of the highest ranked opponent on Friday evening, the Warriors turned around and suffered an embarrassing loss, on their home court, to the lowest ranked team in their conference, just two days later. When asked about their performance struggles, all-star guard Clay Thompson reacted, “It’s hard to conjure up energy every single night ‘cause you’re looking forward to the playoffs and that run (starting next month).”

Another all-star, Draymond Green added, how finding a source of motivation in the regular season can be tough for a team that has achieved as much success as Golden State has in the past four years (Faraudo, Mercury News). “It’s easy to get that mindset,” Green said. “That we’ll just get to the playoffs, then we’ll turn it on.”

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How can this be? How can one of the best professional sports teams of all time, with one of the most respected leaders in the game today (Kerr), perform so poorly, given their past success and overwhelming talent?

This scenario is not uncommon, in sports or the workplace. High performing teams and individuals commonly struggle with maintaining high performance after having to experience success on similar goals or outcomes. The real issue with regressive performance lies in the human struggle to continue optimal motivation toward repetitive goals and the illusion, that we as leaders can motivate others.

The Discerning Phase of Performance

When a high level of skills and ability have been demonstrated on a goal, but motivation and energy drop in pursuit of the desired outcome, you’ve reached, what the authors of Achieve Leadership Genius call, The Discerning Phase of Performance.

In this phase of performance, though you’ve demonstrated high levels of ability to achieve the goal, your energy toward the current pursuit of this goal may have fallen backward. Your goal commitment is wavering for one reason or another. Your mission as a leader, in any context, Self, One to One, or Team, is to find out what is affecting your energy in pursuing the goal. What’s causing the regression in performance? What is your commitment to achieving the goal? Is there anything that would help recharge your energy toward achieving the goal?

“Depending on circumstances, you may get to the Discerning Phase of Performance where you wonder if you want to sustain the Ability and Energy to retain your high performance,” says motivation expert, and CoAuthor of Achieve Leadership Genius, Susan Fowler. “In the Discerning Phase of Performance, you should assess whether it is worth the continuing effort to be a high achiever on a particular goal.”

The Illusion of Achievement

As team members begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, they may start to relax or back off on their energy to pace themselves toward the end state. The pure anticipation of reaching a goal can release dopamine and give you a sense of satisfaction similar to that of achieving the actual goal itself.

You could also experience what is known as the Arrival Fallacy. This fallacy may have tricked team members brains into being sure they're going to reach the goal, behaving as if they’ve already reached the end state of performance before the goal is complete. The work already seems done, or as if it’s a mere formality, so dopamine starts to drop off before the goal is achieved. Then, when you get to the finish line you’ve been striving for, it doesn't feel as satisfying as it would have otherwise would have been.

Performance Withdrawal

The Discerning Phase is differentiated by team member withdrawal and closure. It’s possible that team member’s energy has diminished as the work comes to an end and individual task issues have been creatively solved. This is when abatement of desire and focuses comes along with goal achievement. Closure is entirely appropriate once the goal is achieved, but the team must guard itself against premature closure.

Looking Ahead

The Discerning Phase of Performance may also be caused by individual or team members looking ahead toward a more critical moment to increase their energy toward the goal. “In some cases,” says Fowler, “Individuals may suffer from Big Goal Syndrom, where the goal is too big, and the end objective is in the distance future.” Big Goal Syndrome can have individuals lower the urgency to perform at a high level in the current moment, to reserve their high energy for a period of performance in the future--assuming they can automatically raise their energy, or “flip a switch” on performance.

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Navigating the Discerning Phase of Performance

Navigating the Discerning Phase of Performance is critical to staying on track toward the end goal, and not allowing low energy or motivation to derail you in your efforts to reach the objective. If you feel your motivation to keep pursuing this goal is low, consider having a motivational outlook conversation with a manager, coach, or colleague to review whether you should keep pursuing your goal. You might be able to shift your motivational outlook to a more optimal one to give you the necessary energy to continue pursuing the goal.

Motivational Outlook Questions

What is your motivational outlook toward continuing to pursue this goal at this time?

What are the implications of low energy or low performance toward this goal?

What do you notice about your shifts in energy toward this goal?

What could you do as an individual to shift your energy and motivation toward this goal?

What could we do as a team to shift our energy and motivation toward this goal?

Why Motivation Matters to Performance

Motivation matters at every phase of performance. Outside of the Challenging Phase of Performance, the Discerning Phase is the most complex and challenging, especially as it relates to high energy and engagement. Perhaps even more tricky when you have a high performing individual or team because motivation is not something you can manufacture or do to someone else as a leader. It is a mysterious place within a person and is not something you can control--and that reality is something that is hard for leaders to understand, accept, or manage through.

“The motivation to get the first championship is palpable every single day during the season, and after you win a few it's harder to generate that same type of energy and enthusiasm,” concluded Steve Kerr in an article for Inc. magazine.

Kerr, though, understands that being a successful leader involves knowing the limitations of leadership. As self-leaders and leaders of others, we need to continually find ways to optimize our energy and energy of the team, particularly when we know we are skilled enough to reach our objective. Cultivating a culture of leaders who assess their strength and choose to shift their internal passion for performing at a high level, is an art and a science, and it can be the difference between a winning organization and a one that only gets close to being great, or suffers in mediocrity.

To learn how to regulate dips in energy better and optimize motivation throughout your culture, check out these leadership tactics to guarantee success.