In Switch, Dan and Chip Health discuss the research of James March, a professor of political science at Stanford University.
According to March, we rely on one of two models when we decide: the consequences model and the identity model.
The consequences model is what you use at the grocery store. It’s analytical. As we stroll down the aisle we weigh the costs and benefits of each item. The identity model is more existential. It revolves around three questions: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation?
Generally, the identity model runs the show, which explains why we gravitate towards certain brands even when they are not cost-effective. Apple products are expensive because Steve Jobs knew that customers don’t just buy tangible products; they buy identities, or reinforce existing ones. As I unfolded my MacBook in a coffee shop last week, I could almost hear myself whisper, “I’m a Mac.”
March’s distinction could be a helpful tool in terms of motivating employees. The Heath’s discuss the case of Lovelace Hospital Systems in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Lovelace was experiencing a perennial problem: high turnover rate for nurses. So the vice president of the hospital, Kathleen Davis, teamed with a consultant named Susan Wood and turned the problem on its head.
Why do some nurses stay? They discovered that the nurses with the longest tenure were “fiercely loyal to the profession of nursing–it was part of their identity.” “Once the hospital administrators realized this,” The Heaths write, “… they developed a new orientation program that stressed the inherently admirable nature of nursing work.” Turnover decreased by 30% the next year–patient satisfaction ratings improved as well.
Motivation is usually an identity problem. We underperform not necessarily because we’re lazy or incompetent but because we don’t feel a tight connection between work and identity. If turnover (or performance) is a problem, try showing people that their work matters and that it affects other people. Threats and pressure might be ineffective because they don’t connect the dots. We’re at our best when we’re shown that what we do aligns with who we are.
This article originally appeared in 250 Words and is reprinted with permission.