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Want to Motivate Your Employees? Learn from Weight-loss Superstars

How ditching averages and focusing on star power might improve your organization

Based on the research: “Inspiration from the ‘Biggest Loser’: Social Interactions in a Weight Loss Program”

Article written by: Megan Haynes

Artwork by: Gary Neill

When a new year kicks off, the prospect of a shining fresh start is all too alluring. New year, new me becomes a mantra as we commit to paper our resolutions with earnest determination and a sense of inspiration.

Knowing that a popular goal for many will be to shed a few extra pounds, it’s a good time to remember that there are numerous factors that affect someone’s ability to lose weight. There’s the traditional way of looking at weight loss: eat less food, be more active—yet don’t forget that age, metabolism, emotional well-being, and extenuating health factors also have an effect.

But what about someone else’s weight loss? Can another person’s success motivate our own—and does this principle apply in the workplace?

New research from Nathan Yang, Assistant Professor of Marketing at McGill University, and co-author Kosuke Uetake (Yale School of Management) looks at how a group setting affects a person’s dieting journey and reveals potential lessons for organizations that want to motivate staff.

The researchers studied people who regularly attended group weight-loss meetings and found that, when compared to a class average, all participants still gained a few pounds. But when a group’s most successful participant— “the biggest loser”—was held up as an example, the rest were more likely to lose weight as well.

“By comparing people to an average, participants can often leave feeling discouraged,” says Yang. “It’s easy to think you’ve failed when all of your peers have succeeded in some measure.” In contrast, when compared to the star pupil, rather than feeling discouraged, group participants viewed their peer’s success as something attainable—a goal to reach rather than a scorecard against which they’re to be measured. They might begin to tell themselves: If this person—someone who is on par with everyone else—can do it, then so can I.

Context is everything

So what does this mean for organizations? Yang says the idea of using star employees can be greatly motivating, but only in the right context such as teams that start off on equal footing or where there are measurable metrics of success, like sales targets.

So, don’t go breaking out the employee of the month wall just yet.On the other hand, groups that rely heavily on teamwork may not benefit from one person being elevated above the others. So, don’t go breaking out the employee of the month wall just yet. “What’s important is to know exactly when and why your best success stories should be brought to the fore,” explains Yang.

The star-power approach could be particularly useful for groups that begin a journey together—think interns all coming in with the same level of experience, employees starting an anti-smoking program at the same time, or departments with a social fundraising goal. “There has to be some degree of comparability in terms of the context,” Yang says.

In weight-loss groups, for example, participants gather regularly with the shared goal of losing weight and openly express related frustrations to a supportive and receptive audience. These elements shape the perception that everyone begins on an equal footing, which makes the biggest loser’s success feel attainable.

The importance of success metrics

For Yang, another opportunity to apply this principal occurs outside the workplace. In schools, children’s grades are compared to a class average, which isn’t likely to be motivating. On the other hand, measuring each student’s performance with that of an anonymous top performer could be. The key here is that it’s a measurable metric—an A+ versus a B- is understandable and raising a grade a few degrees is achievable.

Yang maintains that to make the most of star power—whether it’s at work, in school, or in a support group—the situation needs to have obvious markers for comparison. People need to have something defined to work toward.

Higher sales targets, more ambitious KPIs, impressive fundraising goals, regular deadlines are all objectives that people can attain, and this could be where star performers help give fellow employees a bit of a push in the right direction.

There’s no “I” in team

Finally, Yang cautions that even if you identify the top performer, elevating this individual won’t necessarily yield the same benefits in every situation.

Businesses that rely heavily on team structures or that undertake complex projects with many contributors may find that star employees end up doing more of the heavy lifting, which may just be human nature. For example, one study of an egg farm in Peru found that when one egg picker was highly productive their neighbouring colleague slacked off. “It’s not uncommon to have one person coast on a team member’s hard work,” says Yang.

Moreover, when working in a team setting, spotlighting a star employee’s contribution can diminish the overall team effort that goes into making the project successful, Yang adds.

In the end, for companies hoping to motivate and engage employees, whether through a new program or day-to-day management techniques, it’s important to remember that, for many, how well their peers are doing serves as a psychological benchmark, Yang says. That can be beneficial to groups—but also, it can be demotivating; it’s important to assess each situation carefully.

As with weight loss, many factors are involved in a person’s engagement with a specific program. While often mocked, there may actually be value in the employee of the month wall—but only in the right context, of course.

Nathan Yang
Assistant Professor, Marketing

Based on the research: “Inspiration from the ‘Biggest Loser’: Social Interactions in a Weight Loss Program”

Article written by: Megan Haynes

Artwork by: Gary Neill

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