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From Pressure to Passion: Transforming Performance with Play, Purpose, and Potential

Updated: Jun 10, 2023


Transforming Performance with Play, Purpose, and Potential
Transforming Performance with Play, Purpose, and Potential

Improving performance among frontline workers and people interacting with customers is a long-standing challenge for organizations. Research has shown that a worker's motive for doing a task determines their performance. To improve the motive, this article offers an operating model that increases motivation by optimizing play, purpose, and potential while reducing pressure. The model is supported by an example of a national retail organization, which saw a significant increase in productivity, customer satisfaction, and sales after implementing it.

The article describes how the organization's operating model focused on creating emotional and economic pressure to drive performance. However, this tactic was found to reduce total motivation and performance, and frontline employees are among the lowest in total motivation. To engage the front line, the organization implemented a new operating model that focused on optimizing play, purpose, and potential while reducing pressure.


The new operating model had four significant changes:

  1. It reduced the economic and emotional pressure on the front line. High-pressure motivation tactics, including sales commissions, high-pressure conversations, sales-based promotion criteria, and public shaming, were eliminated to ensure the front line could focus on learning.

  2. It incorporated a spirit of play by encouraging experimentation. Each store maintained an idea board that tracked the primary challenges the store had to solve and ideas for solutions. Employees were asked to choose an idea on the board and experiment with it.

  3. It created a sense of purpose around the customer by teaching the employees how to connect every product, process, and policy to the benefit and impact they had on customers.

  4. It systematically managed apprenticeships to manage the pace of learning through training.

The model was implemented in four stores employing about 60 people, and their performance was compared with that of the other 750+ stores in the US. The experiment saw the performance of the experimental stores increase significantly. Productivity increased by 20% year over year, customer satisfaction increased by 11%, and sales increased by 8%. In contrast, the control group saw only a 9% increase in revenue, a 4% decrease in customer satisfaction, and a 2% increase in sales.


Rather than pressuring employees to work, the focus should be on inspiring them to want to do their work well. Employees should be encouraged to experiment, learn and develop new skills. Connecting every product, process, and policy to the benefit and impact they have on customers creates a sense of purpose while systematically managing apprenticeship ensures the pace of learning is maintained.

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