Head to Head with Hengchen Dai


Hengchen Dai is one of our favourite Behaviouralists. Currently Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Olin Business School, Washington University in St Louis, Dai has made understanding the behaviours of ‘being human’ – at home and at work - her profession. She focuses particularly on what motivates us, how we self-regulate our goal-driven action and how to ‘nudge’ this in line with our long-term best interests. Trained at Peking University, with her Doctorate from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Dai is fast becoming an influential leader in the field. She’s presented her work at countless universities and conferences internationally including the University of Chicago, the London Business School, UCLA and most recently at Behavioural Exchange 2015. She has worked with Katherine Milkman and Jason Riis among influential others, most notably on their research into the “Fresh Start Effect”.

We spoke to Dai about her latest, award-winning research building on these insights; “A double-edged sword: How and why resetting performance metrics affects future performance”.

The Clean Slate Effect

Essentially, Dai’s latest work focuses on performance assessments in the workplace, and how their being ‘reset’ – at the beginning of each new month, quarter, year or through transfers to different departments, for example – affects employee motivation and performance. However, as Dai suspected, this ‘clean slate’ isn’t always beneficial for you or your business.

Dai draws an interesting link between ‘fresh starts’ and ‘clean slates’. Both importantly work to understand “how psychological separation from the past influences our current motivation and subsequent performance… Temporal landmarks like birthdays make us feel separate from our past self, one year ago; a reset on our performance records makes our past achievements or failures seem further away from the current performance episodes.” And what affect does all this psychological distance in time and ‘self’ have? “Our engagement in work and personal goal pursuit may change.

Similar to the 'Fresh Start Effect', having our performance metrics ‘reset’ creates a mental separation between our past performances and how we will do, or at least aspire to, in future. But will this new beginning be a blessing or a curse? It turns out our future performance is directly linked to how well we did in the past. If you’ve been having a bad week, month or year this new beginning offers optimism and an increase in motivation; it is a chance to begin again, to be better than you were before and to not let the ‘new you’ be defined by your past failures.

If you were excelling, however, this new beginning could dampen motivation and employee performance; all that hard work, effort and excellence belongs to the past and you feel that you are starting from the bottom all over again. Across four studies, Dai produced strong results showing that the response to a reset depends on past performance, whether you’re playing Major League baseball or a quiet game of Boggle.

How to hit home runs

In the USA baseball players can be traded between the two major leagues – the American League and the National League. When they’re transferred between the two their seasonal batting scores are ‘reset’; when they’re traded to a different team within the same league, however, they retain their batting averages. Dai found, from 1975 all the way to 2015, that ‘resetting’ batting averages tended to increase hitting performance for players who did not perform well prior to a transfer. If you had been playing well, however, the ‘benefit’ of a reset greatly diminished. It wasn’t simply because players were playing for better or worse teams; having controlled for this Dai observed the same effect on individual performance, and thus too assumedly on motivation, irrespective of the team’s overall performance that season.

Dai’s second study looked at Boggle. Participants each played two rounds of the cognitively challenging game and received feedback on their performance in each. One group of Bogglers had their average scores ‘reset’ whereas others had their average scores ‘carry-over’. In both groups, Bogglers were paid based on the total number of correct words that they generated. The only change was whether their average scores were reset or tracked between the two rounds. Like baseball players, the Bogglers improved their performance due to a reset if they were doing poorly in the first round, but decreased their performance if they were doing well.

As we know, how well we’re ‘rated’ as doing, and how well we think we are, aren’t always the same. Dai varied people’s perceptions of their performance in another two studies. She found that when people were led to believe that they did not perform well, a reset decreased their performance, and people tended to decline the opportunity of having a “clean slate” when they were offered the opportunity to do so.

Assessing the assessments

This research has important implications for how we design our assessment structures to motivate and improve employee performance in the workplace. But how do we defend ourselves against this double-edged sword? Dai’s first step:

be aware of the differences between well-performing people (or those who thought that they performed well) and poorly-performing people (or those who thought that they did not)… Managers may not realize the negative impact” that such ‘resets’ can have. “To reduce the possibility that new programs will backfire among top performers, managers may want to highlight the relevance of past performance only for top performers… Also, employees may appreciate the opportunity to put their past performance records behind them after a streak of weak performance. Managers may be able to help employees cope with negative feedback by offering them the option to reset their performance statistics”.

Have an employee that’s had a terrible week? Allow them the choice of whether or not to ‘begin again’, “employees endowed with such an option may feel control over how they can motivate themselves and thus experience increased job satisfaction and engagement.

Awareness of this double-edged sword is fundamental to aligning your business’ performance measurement systems with your company ambitions: improving productivity, motivation and tangible results. Dai also offers some more great insights into upping performance and motivation based on recent management research: focusing on your ‘best self’. As she explains it, having people reflect on their best self can reduce anxiety at work, increase productivity, and strengthen employment relationships”.

Getting personal

Invaluably, these insights into 'fresh starts', ‘clean slates’, motivation and achieving your goals aren’t just useful at work. Dai stresses that

the fresh start effect has the potential to motivate people to engage in beneficial personal activities, like encouraging savings. For people who knew that they should save more but have never gotten around to doing so, symbolic moments like birthdays and moving to a new city are likely to get them to think about a big picture and be ready to tackle a big personal goal. Also, companies can try to leverage those opportunities to promote savings.”

An awareness of clean slates, fresh starts, and their effects is invaluable to improving your motivation and goal-driven action at home and at work. Importantly, like with ‘fresh starts’ you can clear your own slate; give yourself the chance to begin again. “Change begins with you”: you’ve heard it so many times because it’s true.

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Other articles by Hengchen Dai:

Staats, B.R., Dai, H., Hofmann, D.A., & Milkman, K.L. (forthcoming). Process compliance and electronic monitoring: Empirical evidence from hand hygiene in healthcare. Management Science.

Dai, H., Milkman, K.L., & Riis, J. (forthcoming). Put your imperfections behind you: Temporal landmarks spur goal initiation when they signal new beginnings. Psychological Science.

Dai, H., Milkman, K.L., Hofmann, D.A., & Staats, B.R. (2015). The impact of time at work and time off from work on rule compliance: The case of hand hygiene in healthcare. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(3), 846-862.

Dai, H., Milkman, K.L., & Riis, J. (2014). The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science, 60(10), 2563-2582.

Brooks, A.W., Dai, H., & Schweitzer, M.E. (2014). I’m so sorry about the rain! Superfluous apologies demonstrate empathic concern and increase trust. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(4), 467-474.

Bitterly, T.B., Mislavsky, R., Dai, H., & Milkman, K.L. (2015). Dueling with desire: A synthesis of past research on want/should conflict. In W. Hofmann and L. Nordgren (eds.) The Psychology of Desire.

Dai, H., Milkman, K.L., Beshears, J., Choi, J.J., Laibson, D., & Madrian, B.C. (2012). Planning prompts as a means of increasing rates of immunization and preventative screening. Public Policy & Aging Report, 22(4), 16-19.