The largest leadership training institute in the world is the U.S. West Point military academy. To be accepted into West Point’s four year bachelor program candidates must come from the top rankings of high school grades and show strong performance on standardised entrance exams. The physical requirements are even more demanding.
Unsurprisingly, even with these tough entry requirements the dropout rate is still considerable -costing the U.S. government millions and so the academy is always working to improve retention rates. These efforts include partnering with leading leadership research intuitions such as the Yale school of management.
So who survives and who drops out?
Professor Amy Wrzesniewski; Yale school of management
Professor Amy Wrzesniewski is a Positive Psychology researcher at Yale school of management. In a recently published study her team began by assessing officer cadets in the usual way, i.e., just as they entered West Point. However, instead of measuring the usual constructs of intelligence and resilience, they simply asked cadets why they had applied to the academy.
Not surprisingly, the subjects with internal motivations did significantly better across three important measures of
1) Resilience (defined as lasting the distance to graduation).
2) Excellence (qualifying for early promotion).
3) Loyalty (remaining in the military beyond the mandatory 5 years).
Moreover, one further finding was truly unexpected. Despite all previous assumptions that two motivations are better than one, those with both internal and external motivations did not excel. It seems internal motivations alone are what matters. And Internal motivations are so important that any additional motivations become a distraction from what really matters - the all-important internal motivations.
For example, when you’re struggling on long hike with a heavy backpack (of course it’s also raining) you need to be very clear on why you’re doing it. If the situation is intrinsically meaningful to you, it feels self-motivating. But if you are only doing it for some external, later reward the motivation wears thin. And thinking about both splits your focus.
This discovery challenges the conventional wisdom around what motivates people, who we should recruit and/or promote, who we allocate projects to etc.
Back in the real world
In job interviews it is customary to begin with an ice-breaker question such as…
• “what attracted you to this position.”
We now know this question is too important to be an ice breaker. A person’s answer to this question will predict resilience, excellence and loyalty. Use this question, or others like it, to distinguish between applicants who bring external reasons (it’s the next step in my career) from those who bring internal reasons (I have a personal connection to this work).
Everything else being equal, find the person who seems born to do this kind of work- and employ them.