#232      23 min 10 sec
Going the distance: Lessons in staying motivated on long-term projects

Management expert and sociologist Prof Bruce Barry discusses the behaviors and mindsets of those who persevere with long-term -- and very long-term -- projects. Bruce also explains how some businesses can benefit from adopting a longer term view. Presented by Jennifer Martin.

"Most people are just sort of fooling around with goals and incentives and assuming that humans, like rats in mazes and cages, will just respond quite simply to pecuniary or extrinsic incentives arranged in a certain way. Our work suggests that if you really want people motivated for the long run you have to engage in much more complicated sort of portfolio of approaches trying to tap into their psychology." -- Prof Bruce Barry




Prof Bruce Barry
Prof Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is Brownlee O. Currey, Jr. Professor of Management at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University, with a secondary appointment in the Department of Sociology. Prof. Barry’s research and expertise lie in two areas: (1) social issues in management, including ethics, workplace rights, and public policy; and (2) the psychology of interpersonal and group behavior in organizations, including power, influence, negotiation, conflict and justice. He has published on these topics in numerous scholarly journals and volumes. He has also been examining free expression and workplace rights from legal, managerial, and ethical perspectives. His book on this subject is Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace, published in 2007 by Berrett-Koehler.

Prof. Barry is a past president of the International Association for Conflict Management, and a past chair of the Conflict Management Division of the Academy of Management. He is currently associate editor of Business Ethics Quarterly. His (co-authored) books on negotiation are among the most widely adopted texts on that subject in colleges and universities worldwide.

A native of New York, Prof. Barry earned undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1991. He has also taught at UNC-Chapel Hill and at Duke University, and has been a visiting professor at the Melbourne Business School and the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.

Credits

Presenter: Jennifer Martin
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

JENNIFER MARTIN
I'm Jennifer Martin, thanks for joining us. Volumes have been written in the field of applied psychology about goal setting, studies on motivation. About what inspires us to improve, to strive and to keep striving whether in our personal or professional lives and planning plays a large part in setting goals especially in the corporate world. Yet, according to social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen, the distinction between short term and long term planning seems to have been eradicated in many companies. But today's guest is here to remind us of that distinction. Bruce Barry is Professor of Management and Sociology from the Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He joins us on this episode of Up Close to share the findings of his studies into what motivates those who set goals that have little or no likelihood of being met in their lifetime. Men such as Danny Hillis who is building a millennium clock which will tick once a year. The century hand will advance once every one hundred years and the cuckoo will come out on the next millennium. Then there are the scientists who are searching for extraterrestrial intelligence as part of the SETI project who are unlikely to see results in their own lifetime. And closer to home, the Netherlands has established a two hundred year plan to cope with global warming. In an age of quarterly earnings reports, impatient shareholders and imperatives on rapid return on investment or ROI, what can businesses and organisations learn from those who choose to play the very long game. Bruce Barry, thank you for joining us

BRUCE BARRY
Well it's my pleasure to be here.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Bruce, let's begin with your motivation for this study. It didn't come from pure theoretical considerations, did it?

BRUCE BARRY
Well it started, my co-author Professor Thomas Bateman and I were thinking some years ago about the situation that we studied rather than about the theories underlying it, that's true. We started to think about some of the people who engage in these kinds of very long term pursuits. You described some of them in your introduction. As scholars who study organisational behaviour and the psychology of behaviour at work, you're interested in motivational issues generally and we started thinking about this idea of very long term motivation. Motivation in situations where you're working toward goals that you may not see in your working lifetime or, at the very least, we're talking more like decades rather than just months and years.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So tell us about some of these people.

BRUCE BARRY
Well you mentioned SETI scientists, people who are searching for extraterrestrial intelligence mostly using techniques of radio astronomy. That's actually one of the groups of folks that we originally started to think about having noticed their existence and thought a little bit about what they're doing. Now, those are folks who are trying to find something, the work goal is the finding of a radio signal that would indicate that there's life out there somewhere in the galaxy. That's a funny kind of a goal right because it's an on-off goal, you either find it or you don't. But SETI science and serious SETI scientists have been doing this work for decades now, going back to the 1970s and earlier. Some of the ones who got in earlier are starting to retire so this idea of not achieving the goal in your working lifetime is something we're actually seeing. So as we thought about those folks and we thought about what keeps them going, searching for this thing they may not find. We started also to think more broadly about other kinds of pursuits where that same dynamic is in play where the goals are very long term and the research question started to form. What's unique, motivationally, about these people, what keeps them going? One of the reasons why this research question struck us as meaningful is because although there's a lot of work over many years on various aspects of motivation and goals, very little of that work looks at those processes over the long term. A lot of that work looks at it in very short periods of time.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So we seem to have a lot of literature on short term goals, so what is that current thinking on goal setting strategy?

BRUCE BARRY
Well the area of work on goals in tasks and work known as goal setting theory has been around for years. There have been hundreds if not thousands of studies; it's a very robust area of applied social psychology. We know that people respond well to goals that are specific and challenging, not too difficult when there's feedback along the way towards those goals. A lot of that research is experimental rather than fieldwork, although some of it is in the field as well. The thing about that work, powerful though it is in terms of telling us how goals motivate, it's all quite short term. It's pretty rare to see studies in that field that look at goals longer than maybe a few weeks, that a long term goal is something that's maybe a few weeks or months. There's really little work on the psychology of setting and responding to goals in a much longer timeframe such as we're talking about in this study.

JENNIFER MARTIN
In your study you manage to identify a missing link when it came to understanding long term goal strategies and you called this the self-regulation process. Can you explain that to us?

BRUCE BARRY
Self-regulation processes that's sort of an established area of the psychology of task pursuit and motivation. Self-regulation refers generally to the idea that we engage in these processes and strategies that help us cope with changing circumstances. In the most general sense self regulation is kind of the capacity to guide our activities over time as things change. Self regulation theories and self-regulation research certainly has, as an important concern, the issue of goals and feedback in relation to those goals, because goals are one way that we regulate our behaviour over time. In this study we didn't do very much thinking in advance about what we expected to find among these people we were studying because we specifically adopted a research strategy that would let the data speak to us. We wanted to come at this with relatively few preconceived notions. But one of the preconceived notions we did come into this with was that self-regulation is probably especially important for people pursuing very long term goals. That the sort of processes and strategies by which people engage in self-regulation of their activities, in relation to goals, would probably be important. We know from other research on all this stuff that self-regulation matters because it's done well it's something that's kind of a marker of psychological health and achievement. So we thought it would matter with this group of people.

JENNIFER MARTIN
This is Up Close, I'm Jennifer Martin. Our guest today is Vanderbilt University Sociologist and Professor of Management Bruce Barry and we're talking about the psychology of those that set long term goals and what we can learn from them. So tell us about your methodology, how you went about this process?

BRUCE BARRY
So we used an overall method that was quite inductive in nature. The actual data collection method was straightforward interviewing. We spoke at length with people who are engaged in this kind of long term goal pursuit. Sat down and had lengthy, what we call semi-structured interviews, a collection of questions from which we deviate as the conversation dictates. These interviews lasted from sixty to ninety minutes, sometimes a little bit longer. What we had here was interviews with a few dozen people which, even though it's not a lot of people not a very large sample, it's a lot of data. With this kind of method where we're trying to sort of pull conceptual themes out of the data we used a fairly standard process that involved assessing the content of these interviews, breaking all of the interviews down into sort of individual thought units. You know sentences or short paragraphs that kind of hang together as an idea. Then we, as researchers, my co-author and I just spent hours and hours essentially evaluating all of these comments on motivational issues and seeking themes that emerge from the data. Sorting them, categorising them, you do this with some of the data, you leave some of the data out, you specifically kind of sample from all of your interviews so that you can find some things. You think you see some patterns and some concepts emerging and then you can use the rest of the data that you weren't initially using to kind of test and see if they're really there. The trick in this kind of thing is you're trying to find legitimate themes that recur among multiple interviewees, multiple people that we talked to. It's very easy to become tempted by something particularly clever or striking that one or two people say. But we're really looking for things that come from multiple informants, multiple humans that we talked to. So you're trying to pursue this kind of very sort of loose conceptual method of pulling themes out but doing it in a reasonably rigorous way. So that, as I say, you're not distracted by the astoundingly interesting at the expense of what's really happening deeper into the dataset.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Bruce, you identified some themes that emerged from your research. Could we begin with the importance of allegory?

BRUCE BARRY
Well allegory is a term that we are using in describing a kind of a collection of things that we noticed among the people that we talked to. We noticed that there is this tendency for them to use sort of figurative representations, metaphors, analogies, historical reference, symbolic allusions. Things like that to describe the kind of meaning and significance of the work that they do or maybe the largeness of the task or its significance. We noticed this among several respondents. We thought this was an interesting aspect because it suggests to us that people who work in very long term goals perhaps benefit from these kinds of symbolic representations of what it is they do. It adds almost an emotional component to it.

JENNIFER MARTIN
What are some of the phrases that they use?

BRUCE BARRY
Well for example, in the way of historical references invoking images or representations of discovery referring to Christopher Columbus or Galileo or to frontier-like references. Referring to our work being something like the Wild West out there, a reference to sort of, you know, American history pioneer culture. Others using metaphors involving intergenerational ideas, standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, invoking the work of artists and others who pioneer. We saw these taking many different forms but the common element to them was this kind of allegorical or figurative element. We thought that's a very interesting thing that has gotten almost no attention in the study of motivation. People think about that kind of stuff in terms of leadership that leaders engage in allegorical or figurative behaviour, symbolic behaviours but not n terms of sort of everyday work motivation.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So where does the comment that one of the people you interviewed - he spoke about the "cocktail party effect". Where does that fit? Does that come under your theme of allegory? Explain that one to us.

BRUCE BARRY
Actually the cocktail party comment that you're referring to actually fits somewhere else. One of the things about the things about the people that we talked to doing this kind of very long term work is that they're doing really sort of interesting work in unusual fields. And we did notice some of them observe that that unusualness is really a big part of their kind of self-identity and how they value the experience of what they're doing. One of the broad themes that we pulled out of the data is we labelled it singularity. It refers to the sort of perceived uniqueness of the work that they're doing. People motivated by the special responsibilities or the specialness you might say of the responsibility, the opportunity to engage in work that very few people do. This idea of a "cocktail party effect" refers to the fact that when you're engaging in that kind of singular work, when you find yourself in casual conversation with strangers and people ask, well what do you do? You start talking about it you find yourself the centre of attention. We noticed people talking about those kinds of perceptions about their experiences doing this sort of work. As I say we labelled it singularity as a way to capture that uniqueness that specialness.

JENNIFER MARTIN
What about notions of time? You list futurity as a strong theme amongst those that you interviewed. What do you mean by that?

BRUCE BARRY
Well we used the word futurity to label a theme that came out of the data that has to do with the illusions people make to sort of the deep future out there. To the long term impact associated with the thing that they were doing, the possibilities that lay out there for it. In particular the generativity of the work. You know, when you talk to people, as we did, who are doing work that may not come to fruition in their own working lifetime, people start thinking about the generations after them and how this will affect that. We wanted them to talk about that kind of thing. So people talking about how the stage is set for perhaps children or grandchildren to benefit. To know the answer to what it is they're working on or perhaps to benefit from how that answer or that goal achievement will actually make some difference in the lives who come after them.

JENNIFER MARTIN
On Up Close this episode we're talking with a sociologist and management professor, Bruce Barry, about the psychology of those that set long term goals and what we can learn from them. I'm Jennifer Martin. So, Bruce, what kind of a sense of self do those who are able to look so far long term have?

BRUCE BARRY
In our study we used the word self to label one of the key themes that has to do with the way people invoke or represent their own personal identity, think about their reputation. We wonder the extent to which motivation for very long term periods might be a function of people's sort of self-perception and self-concept since we know already that so much else about what we do day to day depends on those things. So we were very interested in hearing how these people perceive themselves. You have to remember too that pretty much all of our informants were in fields in which we would sort of label them accomplished professionals, scientists, social scientists, physical scientists others who were working in fields of some sort of academic and professional accomplishment. That's important because it means that issues of reputation and issues of professional standing are potentially involved as well. And that matters in part because some of these folks are also working on the kinds of projects that might not be so well accepted in their fields. So we were quite interested to learn both how they perceived themselves, also how they perceive of the sort of cultures, the professional cultures, organisational cultures in which they're embedded. After all whatever these people are doing they are working for a living at these tasks. So that, you know, they have employers they work in organisations they're part of professions and professional organisations.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Bruce, this seems to link in with another one of your themes, knowledge. Can you talk to us about that?

BRUCE BARRY
Knowledge and learning were clearly important because if you're pursuing a very long term goal where actually realising the thing might be decades away there are still rewards along the way. Clearly one of the big rewards along the way for a lot of the people we talked to is the accumulation of knowledge. The advancement of perhaps the field they're working in. In some way, even if the goal itself is not realised, acquiring new skills, new understanding perhaps developing new techniques for the search or the pursuit, whatever it is that they're doing. That's clearly a very big motivating factor. We heard that from several people. Sort of as long as I'm learning and as long as I'm gaining something out of this with respect to knowledge then I feel like I'm accomplishing something even if I'm not actually accomplishing the goal.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So the process plays an important part as well?

BRUCE BARRY
Yes and one of the themes we labelled progress refers to this idea of forward movement in the direction of long term goal pursuit. Certainly motivation to pursue long terms goals derives in part from achieving some sub-goals or some steps along the way. As I said a minute ago, advancing perhaps tools and techniques in the pursuit of that goal, these things matter quite a bit and perceiving that there's some kind of forward motion. That's I think not a surprise to find that pursuit of long terms goals sort of stands on or depends on achieving some stuff along the way. But it was important that we actually see that in our respondents to confirm that.

JENNIFER MARTIN
What about your theme of embeddedness, I mean what does that encapsulate?

BRUCE BARRY
Well it encapsulates in large part - what I mentioned a couple of minutes ago about the idea that these folks, you know they're employees. They work for somebody an organisation, a university. They have day-to-day lives in organisations and also as professionals they also are embedded perhaps in a professional community of some type. We were interested as researchers who study organisations and life in organisations. We were certainly interested to see the extent to which the motivational sort of forces here have anything to do with the organisations in which they're embedded. We found that it did. A lot of folks clearly placed great value in their colleagues and in being surrounded by a comfortable and satisfying community of folks. Now, interestingly, they also I think derive motivation, some of them, from those who might be sceptical of the work that they're doing. Those who aren't so sure that pursuing this thing that might take decades is such a wise way to go about it. To quote one off our respondents who told us that he'll really enjoy disproving the sceptics. There's motivation that comes from those who aren't so sure you're doing the right thing not just from those who are kind of with you trying to take this long term hill.

JENNIFER MARTIN
In another interesting part of your research in trying to discover what keeps these people motivated you found that they'd found ways in which they were able to use what they were learning in other fields. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

BRUCE BARRY
Well because we were dealing with most of these folks being sort of one corner or another of science - they're very smart people who are able to think broadly about the application of some of the stuff that they're developing along the way. Part of gaining sort of intermediate level satisfaction along the way toward a long term goal pursuit is to perhaps develop new tools and techniques and things. Occasionally we found respondents who would point out that they found applications for those tools or techniques maybe in a completely different field. The example that comes immediately to mind is an astrophysicist who is dealing with some very complex mathematics involving searching the galaxies for extraterrestrial intelligence and figuring out ways to apply those search algorithms in mathematics to a very real world problem which involves searching biological samples for malignancies, for tumours for things like that. Essentially applying the work from their domain to a completely different one. I think there's meaning here because what is shows is that this drive to find progress along the way, advancements, forward motion if you will, that there's a real strong, I think, push for this impulse to try to develop it. To the extent that it involves even looking outside your field that's quite a remarkable thing.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So, Bruce, how can what you've learnt from this study be applied to businesses and organisations? Just what can it teach us?

BRUCE BARRY
Well it certainly the case that most people in organisations are not going to be working on goals that literally take decades to accomplish. But we also know that a lot of organisations, especially in the corporate world, wish their people would think more long term than they do. It's certainly not a new story that many businesses are focused too much on short term earnings and short term results and find it difficult to get the people who work for them to do otherwise. We think what this work does is gives us some hints about the kinds of motivational elements that are necessary if you really want people to think longer term. You don't have to be working on something that's going to take you thirty years to find to perhaps benefit from better development of personal identity. From thinking more about the uniqueness or the singularity of the work that people are doing. Of paying attention more to how people's work is embedded in the organisation and in their professional lives. Maybe even the role of allegory as we talked about earlier, figurative or metaphorical representations of work. There are very few employers out there, there are very few organisations out there that are really cultivating these kinds of things as ways to motivate their workforce. Most people are just sort of fooling around with goals and incentives and assuming that humans, like rats in mazes and cages, will just respond quite simply to pecuniary or extrinsic incentives arranged in a certain way. Our work suggests that if you really want people motivated for the long run you have to engage in much more complicated sort of portfolio of approaches trying to tap into their psychology.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Bruce, thank you so much for joining us on Up Close.

BRUCE BARRY
My pleasure, thanks for having me.

JENNIFER MARTIN
We've been speaking with Bruce Barry, Professor of Management and Sociology from the Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He shared the findings of his studies into what motivates those who set goals that will only be reached long after they are gone. Relevant links, a full transcript and more information on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia. This episode was recorded on 24 January 2013 and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric Van Bemmel. Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I'm Jennifer Martin. Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Up Close. We are also on Twitter and Facebook. For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2013. The University of Melbourne.


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