Motivating Employees Who Fail to Finish

Last Updated Jul 5, 2011 1:10 PM EDT

Some employees are great starters but lousy finishers. Lousy finishers seem to take forever to move the football across the goal line. They get distracted by other work, or even get themselves assigned to another project before finishing the first.

You could use the whip to get these people focused on completing the job, but there is a more subtle tool that comes out of the world of psychology. We'll get to that in a minute. ("Geez, can't he just finish the point without an interruption?").

Psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson points to recent research that draws an important distinction between those who finish and those who don't, or at least take forever to complete. In pursuing a goal, she says, people gauge their progress either by looking at how much has been accomplished or how much there is left to do.

The research shows that people who look ahead at what's left to be done -- "Wow, I've still got 11 key interviews to do and a summary to write" -- are the real finishers. They use work to be done as motivation.

By contrast, people who look at what they've already accomplished -- "Wow, I've met five milestones and and am 53% percent towards my goal" -- are more likely to slack off and look for other things to do. Here's how to help this group get back to moving the ball down the field, according to Halvorson: Dial back on the praise

"Great managers create Great Finishers by reminding their employees to keep their eyes on the prize, and are careful to avoid giving effusive praise or rewards for hitting milestones 'along the way,' Halvorson writes.
Read her post How to Become a Great Finisher for more details.

Do your employees suffer from Failure to Finish? How do you coach them across the goal line?

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(Image by Flickr user quinn.anya, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.