The most powerful force of human behavior is willpower. When managers learn to activate willpower, or volition, in themselves and others, companies reap the benefits of purposeful action taking and see more projects completed.
But engaging volition isn’t easy. It’s a higher attainment than mere motivation. Motivation is the desire to do something; volition is the absolute commitment to achieving something. To activate their willpower, individuals must pass a mental barrier, a personal Rubicon.1 Our research reveals how successful leaders do that and how they use five simple strategies to help lower-level managers accomplish the same.
Recently, as researchers have begun to investigate what it takes for managers to follow through on ambitious goals, the study of willpower has reemerged from the disfavor into which it fell after World War II.2 The reason for management researchers’ interest is clear: Motivating managers with carrot and stick is overly simplistic. People commit to action for more subtle reasons.
New research into managerial action taking supports the distinction between motivation and volition. (See “About the Research.”) Project managers in the companies studied — some large, such as ConocoPhillips and Lufthansa, and others small, such as Micro Mobility Systems — rarely followed through when the going got rough. Only 10% took purposeful action to implement goals.3 The rest, despite knowing what they needed to do, simply did not do it.4
The reason lies in the difference between motivation and volition. Most managers were motivated. But 10% overcame personal barriers to commitment. There is no set way of doing that. Such managers have in common the intensive inner struggle for certainty in both head and heart regarding what they really want. Having engaged their will, these managers had the power to deal with setbacks and persevere through the long, energy-intensive journey from a vision to its realization.
Many managers have never experienced volitional action in the workplace. Others who have stumbled into situations that freed their willpower wouldn’t know how to activate it deliberately. But executives can learn how volitional-action processes work, how to marshal their own willpower and how to facilitate purposeful action taking in lower-level managers.
Motivation vs. Volition
Motivation often is triggered by external stimuli or expectation of reward, but such motivation is susceptible to change.5 More-attractive opportunities may emerge — or obstacles may appear that make the reward seem too small. Intrinsic motivation (a desire driven by an internal need) offers interest and enjoyment, but even those can change.
Volition, however, implies deep personal attachment to an intention. Volitional managers have a powerful need to produce results and aren’t driven by rewards or even enjoyment.6 Willpower lets managers execute disciplined action even when they lack desire, expect not to enjoy the work, or feel tempted by alternative opportunities. Consider Dan Andersson, who led Conoco’s entry into the gas-station business in a small European country.
Andersson’s task was to build Conoco’s retail network and a supporting organization. The market had been deregulated, but the powerful, state-owned monopoly, with government officials’ collusion, had numerous tricks for retaining market share.
“Setting up the first station was a pure fight,” Andersson recalls. “At first I was really down. I felt bad, I was angry and I was worried. But then I got going. There is this movie that I used as a picture in my mind. … It has to do with busting Al Capone in Chicago in 1927 or 1929, and I felt we were doing exactly the same thing. … We were getting those unscrupulous competitors and conniving politicians and bureaucrats who were trying to use their dirty tricks on us. Actually, I ended up deriving huge energy from that unfairness.” Andersson found a way to cross over to determination, and Conoco prevailed.
The ways that the motivation-volition distinction manifests itself vary.7 Volitional managers don’t wait for further information or external stimuli to get started, having overcome doubts their own way. Their perception is biased; they focus attention and energy on information supporting their goals and block out contradictory information. They aren’t tempted by other opportunities or distracted by disruptions.
Motivation often crumbles at negative feedback, colleagues’ resistance or lack of executive interest. Volition, however, is inspired by obstacles. Abandoning the task is not an option.
The Journey Across
The landscape approaching the Rubicon — the personal point of no return — differs from the landscape beyond.8 On the near side lies motivation, the state of wishing, choosing, considering, weighing options. There’s always a way back. On the other side, intellect and emotion merge to create commitment. Bridges are burned; action is relentless.
Three phases define the process of creating and leveraging volition: intention formation, the resolution to cross over to willpower, and intention protection.
The perception of an exciting opportunity (something that will make a difference, nothing routine) triggers the first phase. An emotional dimension gives the intention meaning; a purely rational calculation of cost and benefits of pursuing a goal never leads to volition.
Consider Wim Ouboter, the founder and CEO of Switzerland’s Micro Mobility Systems. One day in 1990, Ouboter wanted a sausage. The shop was too close to drive to, yet too far away to walk — what Ouboter came to call a microdistance. He sensed an opportunity to develop a small scooter. He had always liked scooters. A favorite sister had used one routinely because of a disability, and the entire family used to join her. So there was an emotional link.
Ouboter envisioned a lightweight, distinctive-looking micro-scooter. He built a prototype, intending to start a business. But discouraged by others’ dismissive reactions, he ended up putting the prototype in his garage and forgetting about it. Motivation had not yet become volition.
Crossing the Rubicon
During the first stage, attention is unfocused, perceptions undirected and judgments unbiased. Gradually, managers acquire the focus that precedes the leap to commitment.
Often there’s a catalyst. When Ouboter saw neighborhood children delighting in his long-abandoned scooter, his enthusiasm for a new company rekindled. His wife urged him to commit to the venture if he had faith in it — or keep quiet and face potential regrets.
That conversation was the catalyst. He gave up everything else and determined to do whatever it took to make his scooter a success. Four years later, he was shipping 80,000 scooters daily, against an original total demand estimate of 40,000.
Ouboter’s experience illustrates one essential requirement for crossing over — choice. When there’s no choice — in reality or in perception — there can be no free will, no volition.9 Also essential is acceptance of personal responsibility. The decision to commit comes with the resolve to bear full responsibility.
Volitional managers go through inner consensus building to resolve anxiety, conflicted feelings and doubts.10 After an idea takes hold, the next step is recognizing and confronting those reservations. Few managers confront conflicted feelings about work, a costly mistake that blocks real commitment. By facing their concerns, volitional managers avoid later hesitations. Willpower’s hallmarks are unequivocal determination and the apparently unreasonable belief in success, which help people accomplish feats that others would find impossible.
But deep commitments cannot be made hastily. Some managers first absent themselves from the bustle of day-to-day work to reflect. One says he sleeps on commitments for at least one night. Others create specific processes that help.
Thomas Hill was a midlevel manager in a U.S.-based pharmaceuticals company. Comfortable in his job as head of Central European sales, Hill suddenly faced the possibility of becoming the Indian subsidiary’s general manager.
After days of internal battles, Hill asked two colleagues to debate the pros and cons in his presence. “I was distanced because the struggle took place outside of me,” he recalls. “And yet it made the facts and my inner situation crystal clear.” The colleagues continued the discussion until Hill was sure what he wanted. Impressed, he now uses the process regularly for tough decisions.
Company distractions can take attention away from purposive action, so volitional managers consciously protect their intentions.11 Homer recounts Odysseus’ escape from sea nymphs whose singing made sailors leap overboard and drown. Odysseus wanted to hear the music without dying. He asked his men to bind him to the mast, forbidding them to release him before they had passed the sirens’ island. Then he ordered the men to plug their ears with wax. As the singing began, he struggled to release himself, begging to be untied. But deaf to his entreaties, his men stayed the course, saving themselves, Odysseus and the ship.
Companies are full of sirens — distractions that take attention and energy away from purposive action. Willful managers modify their environment so as to be impervious to corporate sirens. For example, deliberately creating social pressures (public commitments, challenging deadlines or having relevant stakeholders monitor a manager’s activities) can increase the cost of abandoning the goal.
Volitional managers also discipline their thought processes. Whenever doubts surface, they refocus. Some do so by asking themselves, “What would happen if I disengaged?” Others take time off to ponder their original purpose and reaffirm its value. Some recall the promise they made to themselves when they committed.
In addition to self-discipline, volitional managers display positive energy. They maintain excitement about the work by deliberately defending themselves against negative emotions, converting adversities into inspiration.12
Ouboter experienced adversity. He approached the Smart car-makers with a prototype, and at first, they were eager to put a scooter in every car. With a planned total sales figure of 40,000 cars, Ouboter sought out a reliable producer. Unfortunately, Smart reneged, sending this terse rejection: “Thanks for your offer. We wish you the best of luck with your scooter.” It felt like a punch in the stomach. “That’s when I said I’ll do it anyway,” Ouboter recalls.
Having already secured a manufacturer, Ouboter focused on new distribution channels, marketing programs and entry strategies. The scooter caught on in Japan, then Europe, then around the world. By December 2000, Ouboter was selling 80,000 scooters daily, with revenues increasing 1,400% per year. “The Smart cancellation was the best thing that happened,” says Ouboter. “The pain it caused gave me the unexplainable conviction that the scooter will sell, and that’s where I got my energy.”
So another way volitional managers shield intentions is by protecting their self-confidence.13 Self-confidence allows managers to overcome negative feedback and obstacles. An effective way that managers maintain courage is by recalling earlier experiences — problems overcome, successes achieved. Jim Taylor of Conoco did just that.
Top management considered Conoco’s new carbon-fibers technology pivotal to growth, and Taylor was designated to build the business. “You have to believe in yourself. Whenever I am in serious doubt and I know that I may lose courage, I activate a particular memory in my head [when] we went through an extremely hard time and kind of made the impossible happen.” The memory renews his self-confidence.
Volitional managers actively generate positive emotions. Initially exciting projects can become boring or difficult, so managers plan events to reenergize themselves. Some reward themselves for passing certain mileposts. Others find that, in advanced phases of projects, increasing interactions such as review meetings can keep energy flowing and shield intentions.
Spreading Volitional Action
Can volition be triggered or must it be an individual’s choice? How can leaders stimulate committed action taking in their organizations?
Most executives recognize that employees drive organizational action and, therefore, company performance. “What can I do to motivate my people?” they ask, thinking that self-interest guides everyone. Philosopher-psychologist Peter Koestenbaum warns against reducing the individual to an assemblage of primitive instincts and needs.14 He believes leaders unwisely focus on strategies to align employees’ basic needs — say, for money —with company goals.
When goals are simple, the necessary actions relatively routine and unexpected difficulties rare, motivation can lead to action.15 Managerial jobs, however, are rarely routine. Managers have multiple and often conflicting goals, many of which require persistent, long-term action. Their work context is fragmented, with high levels of uncertainty and opposition.16
Engaging willpower is a personal, almost intimate, process that cannot be triggered merely through rewards. Our research highlights five strategies executives use to help lower-level managers overcome personal barriers to purposeful action.
Help People Visualize Their Intention
Managers often have problems committing because the goal is vague. Executives can help by stimulating people to transform their ideas into concrete intentions. Michael Hilti, CEO of Liechtenstein-based construction-equipment maker Hilti until 1994 and since then chairman of its supervisory board, says, “One of my guiding principles for leading people stems from the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm: ‘If life does not offer a clear vision that one wants to realize, it also does not offer a motive to make an effort.’ ”
People need a vivid picture of the goal in order to activate their emotions and protect their intention through the action-taking phase.17 Vivid pictures help simplify long-term goals and make them tangible. Later, if doubts arise, the pictures stimulate perseverance. Senior executives can help managers create such pictures.
Conoco’s Taylor, for example, needed help deciding which of many potential carbon-fiber products to focus on. The material was full of possibility — hard as steel, light as plastic, unbreakable, noncorrosive. Taylor was sure his division could produce large quantities at a lower cost than competitors could (thanks to new production technology developed with DuPont). But where to begin?
The turning point came in a strategic business review with higher-level officers. Because everything was possible, Taylor wanted the officers to suggest where to start. Instead, they challenged him to visualize the potential, to describe one concrete example of what this “really big everything” could look like.
“Slowly I realized I wanted a bridge,” says Taylor. “I wanted a bridge to be made out of carbon fibers — light as plastic, hard as steel, a bridge that would neither break nor rust. That became my personal hook.”
The insight was liberating. By mid-2002, Taylor had a facility, a process protected by 38 patents and a team of 200. Although after the Phillips merger, management shut the division because of market uncertainties, the company continues to be recognized as world leader in certain carbon technologies.
Leaders should help managers create concrete mental models of ways to pursue vivid pictures. Mental models keep managers alert so they notice even small things that might help them move quickly toward the goal. Ouboter found the picture he needed in Smart-car slogans: “Reduced to the Maximum,” “The Future of Mobility.” He recalls, “I saw the whole world with this special lens. … I noticed even the smallest things that helped me implement my dream.”
Encourage People To Confront Their Ambivalence
Engagement of willpower involves the intellectual dimension coming together with the emotional one to create an intention richer than a purely rational goal. That doesn’t imply irrationality. The difference lies in what leaders get managers to ask themselves. Instead of encouraging questions like “What’s in it for me? Is it reasonable?” executives seeking true commitment push people to ask, “What’s the downside? Does it feel right? Do I really want it?” That way, managers engage their emotions, and emotions lead to deeper commitment.
Forcing people to confront their ambivalence is a more difficult way of winning people over than offering rewards and results in fewer projects. But it’s ultimately less risky than halfhearted acquiescence. It helps people see whether they really can offer head and heart.
Consider how Thomas Schumacher helped Matthias Mölleney. Mölleney was human resources executive vice president of SAir Group, parent of Swissair. After Swissair declared bankruptcy, Mölleney got a job offer elsewhere. Then he was asked to handle the SAir liquidation — dismissing the employees, negotiating termination pay, fighting a pilot lawsuit and ultimately firing himself.
Mölleney felt terrible leaving the employees at that stage, but an unemotional approach suggested rejecting the assignment. Mölleney consulted Schumacher, his former mentor. “I hear what you say,” Schumacher observed, “but I also hear what your gut says. Listen to it before you decide; otherwise you’ll be uncomfortable and won’t be able to fully stand behind your decision.”
Mölleney stayed at SAir. “After deciding to stay and do the liquidation, I wanted to make it the best it could be — for the people.” He put all his creativity, effort and energy into it, making sure employees found alternative employment and the ones who stayed remained motivated. “The process pushed me to my personal limits,” Mölleney concedes, “but I never regretted that I had agreed to take on the task. It was worth doing — although the only reward was the feeling that it was the right thing.”
Schumacher helped Mölleney face his ambivalence about leaving his colleagues and recognize he was leaning toward the choice that conflicted with his feelings. Helping managers confront ambivalence doesn’t mean helping them sacrifice themselves to others, but encouraging them to consider their emotions so they can stand behind their decisions. If Mölleney had been a different man, the introspection could have generated a different commitment.
Prepare People for Obstacles
When enlisting people for assignments, most executives paint rosy pictures, downplaying obstacles and highlighting benefits. Those who foster deep commitment often do the opposite. Usually when frontline managers accomplish tasks with disciplined effort, there’s a senior leader in the background who has established steps to prevent superficial commitment.
The head of an IBM subsidiary, whom we’ll call Sven Olafson, is such a leader. In the early 1990s, Olafson observed that, of the many projects begun enthusiastically, only about 15% were completed satisfactorily. IBM had a sounding board that prioritized activities, authorized new projects and allocated resources. Olafson noticed that proposals brought to the sounding board were overly optimistic and focused only on business aspects.
Olafson introduced a new project-prioritization process. Proposals had to include information on business gains, business risks, personal advantages and personal disadvantages. Managers presenting project proposals had to answer, “What would it cost me personally to undertake this?” “What do I have to stop doing?” “What else would I do if I didn’t take up this project?” Candidates had to defend to the sounding board their reasons for initiating the project despite the personal costs. After approval, the sounding board’s head would ask project backers once more whether they were certain about proceeding with a project. Two results: Far fewer projects were started; 95% of projects were successfully completed.
Help People To See and Exploit Choices
The raw materials for intention formation are attractive opportunities. But many managers are prisoners of routine.18 They react to demands instead of weighing what they should be doing or want to do. Some lack the openness necessary for identifying opportunities. They feel squeezed in narrow corsets of expectations. Others perceive opportunities but exclude them because they cannot imagine shaking habits. Senior leaders, in systematizing work, often reinforce habituated activity and prevent people from taking the first step toward commitment: perceiving opportunities.
Giving people freedom to choose is critical. Executives also must help managers develop the confidence necessary for experimenting with ideas.
In 1984, Michael Hilti launched an initiative to enhance his managers’ ability to commit deeply to projects. “I want our managers to take responsibility for what they do,” he explains. “One of the central conditions for this is that they love what they do. The second is that they are aware they have choices. The third is that they commit without reservations.”
Managers go through a three-day training on five aspects of Hilti philosophy: significance of rules, the break with old habits, the freedom to choose (love it, change it or leave it), the swing of life (expect both setbacks and positive experiences) and Cotoyo (commit to yourself). Implemented at a cost of $16 million and used for nearly 20 years, the initiative revolutionized the company’s culture and contributed to the burst of new products that make Hilti the world leader in high-quality tools and construction equipment.
Hilti’s employee-opinion surveys monitor the culture. Survey results are used to enhance and stabilize individual volition and responsibility. Pius Baschera, Hilti’s CEO since 1994, says, “We’ve found that implementation has improved and that it has a significant statistical relationship with leadership, customer satisfaction and market success and performance. There are two decisive effects on everyday behavior that count. First, we don’t backpedal into justifications, blaming or denial. And second, many of our managers try to reach the stars and then accept that you may not get there. Our managers have learned to want a challenge. The stars activate their willpower, while realistic goals would bore and even demotivate them. It’s not always easy … but I’d rather lead a company where I have to restrain people than one where I have to ‘help’ continuously with a whip.”
Build In Stopping Rules
The problem with willpower is that it blinds people and hampers disengagement. Hence, many volitional managers persist in action taking even when the undesirability of a project becomes manifest. Others fall so much in love with projects that they cannot disengage after success. Stopping rules can counteract the pathologies of willpower that arise from the very strength of personal commitment. Such rules must give sufficient rope to managers, yet not so much that they can hang themselves.
Some executives put the responsibility for deactivation in the hands of the project initiators. The managers themselves define critical events that, should they occur, would trigger initiative termination. But stopping rules must be part of initial commitments and not introduced in medias res. Especially with highly innovative projects, it’s difficult to define concrete deactivation criteria. To prevent the demoralizing effect of introducing stopping rules after committed action taking has commenced, some top managers create more flexible, social stopping mechanisms.
Lars Kolind, CEO of Denmark’s Oticon, developed a socially embedded stopping rule that works well in his decentralized and entrepreneurial hearing-aid company. Managed almost exclusively through projects, Oticon allows employees to initiate projects they feel committed to. The initiator, however, must persuade the required number of colleagues to join the team voluntarily and must get at least one senior manager to agree to be a sponsor. The stopping rules kick in if the initiator gives up, if team members withdraw participation or if the sponsor backs out.
The Foundation for Persistent Execution
Breakthrough strategies, revolutionary change, and the flexibility to turn on a dime are exciting ideas that easily capture corporate leaders’ imagination. Occasionally they catapult a company to success, but durable corporate progress is built on disciplined and relentless execution of specific tasks. Unfortunately, persistence is underemphasized in the behaviors and actions of top management.
Persistent action taking relies on willpower. It needs deep personal commitment to specific initiatives and managers’ energetic efforts to achieve the desired results. Managers have to engage in a way that enables them to achieve their goals against all obstacles. (See “Strategies for Volitional Action.”)
Strategies for Volitional Action
Our research also raises a broader question. Most executives try to build people’s commitment to the overall company, rather than to specific projects.19 But company loyalty is increasingly difficult to achieve and sustain. Besides, general commitment, even if achieved, does not necessarily lead to purposeful action on specific tasks.
The best way to build effective organizational commitment is to build it bottom-up, on the foundation of personal ownership of and commitment to specific initiatives and goals. In the world of mobile employees, frontline entrepreneurship and constant, unavoidable organizational restructuring, it is that kind of commitment that corporate leaders must develop if they want to build a bias for action in their companies.