The N-effect of motivation

Motivating others is often the most challenging job we have. Whether it’s employees, volunteers, students, or players, encouraging others to not only do more, but to do better takes some skill - and sometimes, a little bit of incentive.

Luckily, the myth of using carrots and sticks as effective motivators has been debunked in recent years, but there is some research in human behavior that you may want to consider before planning your next pep talk or breaking out your old cheerleading uniform. It’s called the N-effect.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and Haifa University have been studying the impact of competition on performance, and what their findings, so far, have concluded is that the LESS competition one has, the more competitive they are. In an ongoing series of experiments they have found again and again that people work harder, and perform better, when they are up against fewer people.

In a “Newsweek” article Stephen Garcia, one of the study’s authors said, "How we compare ourselves to other individuals is the engine that drives how we compete against others. When there are only a few people in the race, we put our foot on the gas, working harder and harder to outpace our competitors. And the competition becomes very personal. How we compare ourselves to others in the room becomes a referendum on our own ability.”

It makes sense that the more competition we have, the more likely we are to diminish our own chances of “winning.” We calculate the odds in our head and give up before we even begin. So the next time you need to motivate your group, consider the N-effect. Reduce the number of people they will be competing with - another workgroup instead of the entire organization, their own classroom instead of the entire school, someone who plays the same position instead of the entire team - and you will be telling their brains to work harder and do more because they just might have a fighting chance of coming out on top.

James Kane