Q: How can different types of goals affect employee motivation? What is the difference between priming subconscious goals and setting conscious goals? And why is this a potentially groundbreaking approach to employee motivation?
A: As employees repeatedly pursue a conscious goal in a similar context, they encode associations with the goal, environment, and behaviors. These associations gradually turn automatic in the subconscious. When the same environment is re-encountered, it primes the stored goal, which triggers behaviors that were associated with the goal in the past. This process—from priming to behavior—is automatic, unfolding without awareness of the context-goal-behavior associations.
Pursuing conscious goals is considered one of the most effective work motivation techniques. But, unlike conscious goals, primed goals do not consume limited attentional resources. Heightened demand for information processing in contemporary organizations spotlights the need to reduce attention drain, making primed goals an appealing alternative approach to boosting work motivation. My latest research advances a new priming program of research in organizational behavior, searching for creative ways to mitigate escalating cognitive load without sacrificing performance.
For instance, we found a positive effect of primed goals on two performance measures over one week in a customer service company where employees were handling returns and complaints from Walmart customers. If primed goals produce effects similar to conscious goals but without draining attention, it would have ground-breaking implications for organizations. Why? Because the functional value of conscious goals is preserved, but the attention is saved, which can then be deployed where it is irreplaceable. Also, priming goals does not require any financial resources.
Current research focuses on the positive effects of primed goals, but future research needs to elucidate what happens when conscious and primed goals are in conflict. If employees face two conflicted conscious goals, they might ask for help. But, because primed goals operate below awareness, the downstream consequence in this scenario would be a state of undetected goal conflict and an inability to deliberately address it. This can cause behaviors inexplicable to self.
—Alex Stajkovic is the M. Keith Weikel Distinguished Chair in Leadership and an associate professor in the Department of Management and Human Resources at the Wisconsin School of Business
Read the paper “Prime and Performance: Can a CEO Motivate Employees Without Their Awareness?” published in Journal of Business Psychology.