In the Long Term

From the Fall 2012 edition of Vanderbilt Business

carrot-450From research scientists working in drug discovery to portfolio managers waiting for the markets to bear out their investment theses, how do certain types of professionals sustain their energy and enthusiasm over long periods?

That’s the question undertaken in a new study co-authored by Bruce Barry, the Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Professor of Management.

“Why and how do people stay motivated in their work when goal accomplishment is at best many years off and may never occur at all?” Barry and co-author Thomas Bateman, of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, ask in a paper for the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Professionals who are able to sustain the long-term pursuit of their work goals start like anyone setting out to accomplish a set of tasks. They start by focusing on a specific goal, expending some initial effort and show some perseverance over the short term.

But then, these professionals enter “a complex set of cognitive and affective phenomena that implicate perceptions of self, the future, task activities, and a variety of other gratifications,” Barry and Bateman write.

To understand the psychological forces at play when pursuing long-term goals, the co-authors identified and conducted in-depth interviews with 25 professionals whose work goals included the following traits: Eventual success could take years, or perhaps generations; real progress comes very slowly; there is a significant chance of failure. While these conditions may define the most extreme cases of pursuing long-term goals, Barry and Bateman say the insights generated from the interviews have wide-reaching implications for both professionals and managers.

The researchers then distilled the key elements of the interviews into eight sources of motivation that provide “psychological sustenance” in the pursuit of long-term goals:

  1. Allegory: figurative representations or abstractions that offer significant, consequential meaning (e.g., comparisons to the Wright Brothers or the moon landing)
  2. Futurity: allusions to the long-term impact and possibilities associated with the ultimate outcomes that may result from the realization of a long-term goal (e.g., setting the stage for children and grandchildren)
  3. Self: statements that invoke personal identity, reputation or personal belief systems (e.g., expressing personal creativity)
  4. Singularity: references to the perceived uniqueness of the endeavor (e.g., the big exploration that nobody could have done before)
  5. Knowledge: statements that refer to skill development, new understanding, acquiring truth and finding ways to control events (e.g., any knowledge that’s created is good)
  6. The Work: allusions to the nature of the work, including challenges, methods, risks and uncertainties, as well as elements that are fun or surprising (e.g., like a puzzle that needs solving)
  7. Embeddedness: ways in which individuals see their work situated within social contexts, as well as ways in which their work garners social legitimacy within their professions and in society (e.g., an enjoyment from disproving the skeptics)
  8. Progress: statements that emphasize the notion of forward movement, often short-term, in the direction of long-term goal pursuit (e.g., advancements in tools and techniques that facilitate the work)

These motivational themes incorporate near-term (proximal) and long-term (distal) features that weave together immediate payoffs with a perception of doing important and lasting work. In addition, all the subjects interviewed by Barry and Bateman for this study mentioned the important role self-regulation plays.

Bruce Berry
Bruce Barry

“We saw [self-regulation] as an overarching process and set of strategies implicated in many of the motivating themes identified in our analysis,” they write. The co-authors highlight six forms of self-regulation that include maintaining focus on goal-directed actions, controlling emotions, and coping with failure—using it as a basis for improvement rather than an injurious setback.

While the sample size may have been limited, with no means to compare similar data sets, Barry and Bateman write that the study is meant to offer meaningful conceptual extensions to well-established theoretical areas, setting the stage for future investigations.

“Long-term goals arguably are at least as important as short-term goals in their ultimate consequences for individuals, organizations, and societies,” Barry and Bateman write. “Now, we believe, is the time to expand our field’s search for theories and strategies that can help people and organizations pursue and achieve important long-term goals.”

A version of this article originally appeared in VB Intelligence on July 25, 2012.