This article was produced and financed by BI Norwegian Business School

Success is characterised by strong commitment, self-development, learning, mastering tasks and cooperation. (Photo: Colourbox)

What creates success at work

A strong focus on comparing employee performance does not necessarily create the best achievements. In order to be successful, a mastery climate must also be created.

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BI Norwegian Business School

BI is a private and independent business school in Norway.

Most organisations are confronted by customers with increasing demands and tougher competition. Globalisation and technological developments change the ground rules in sector after sector.

For a company to keep abreast of this, its employees must be motivated to achieve more and perform better.

What is required for employees to experience success at work? Is it possible to create a motivational climate that contributes to improving the company’s results and at the same time safeguards the employees’ job satisfaction and well-being?

In her doctorate project at BI Norwegian Business School, organisational researcher Christina Nerstad has been concerned with finding out whether it is possible to create a motivational climate that promotes job satisfaction, commitment and improved job performance. And which contributes to retaining valuable employees. In brief, success at work.

Performance and mastery
Christina G. L. Nerstad (Photo: Audun Farbrot)

The are two main forms of motivational climate: performance climate and mastery climate.

Performance climate: Success is defined on the basis of comparison with others. Demonstrating superiority in the form of abilities is a crucial factor. A performance climate motivates rivalry and internal competition. The best and most talented persons take centre stage and are constantly called attention to. Consistently being the best performer is important. This leads to rewards and recognition in the organisation.

Mastery climate: Success is characterised by strong commitment, self-development, learning, mastering tasks and cooperation. The focus is giving all the employees the opportunity to develop their potential without constantly being compared with their colleagues.

In the same way that a motivational climate can be divided into a performance climate and a mastery climate, we as individuals are susceptible to defining success in two different ways:

“We all have a tendency to be mastery-oriented and/or performance-oriented,” Nerstad points out. “This affects the motives for our actions and behaviour.”

According to Nerstad, it is easier to do something about the situation (motivational climate) in the workplace than changing the personality disposition of the employees.

Learning from top-level sports

There is little research-based knowledge about the significance of a motivational climate for the workplace.

Nerstad grew up in a family involved in sports and became interested at an early age in finding out what was necessary for top-level athletes to perform their best.

Research in sports psychology concludes that coaches should aim to create a mastery climate rather than a performance climate. According to Nerstad, a mastery climate can enhance activity satisfaction, inner motivation - where the activity itself is rewarding, endurance in the event of defeat/failure and improve achievements.

The best sports achievements are not created through a strong focus on how the individual athlete performs compared with his team-mates.

“A performance climate is more apt to lead to negative consequences such as performance anxiety, negative stress, external motivation - e.g. financial money reward, burnout and cheating. The consequence could be that athletes drop out of sports more readily in the event of failure,” says Nerstad.

Mastery leads to success at work

She has, together with the researchers Astrid Richardsen, Glyn Roberts and Anders Dysvik, conducted a questionnaire survey of almost 9,000 employees in private and public Norwegian organisations on the motivational climate at work and how this affects the individual’s motivation, attitudes, well-being and job achievements.

The participants in the survey came from occupations such as engineering, technology and finance.

The study shows that a mastery and motivational climate at work have different effects on the employees’ motivation, commitment, turnover intention - considering finding another job - and achievements.

A motivational climate contributes to creating a change in how the employees define personal success and a change in the employees’ perception of burnout and commitment over time.

“A mastery climate contributes to a great extent in creating enhanced job commitment over time, while a performance climate rather contributes to creating a feeling of burnout over time,” she explains.

If the employees experience a mastery climate they become more mastery-oriented and thus feel more committed at work.

“The results may indicate that creating a mastery climate contributes to creating a positive performance culture and enhanced success and job satisfaction,” says Nerstad.

She has found that a motivational climate will also affect our personality orientation. Employees who experience a mastery climate at work are inclined to be more mastery-oriented over time, while employees who to a great extent experience a performance climate are inclined to be more performance-oriented over time.

Six ways to create a mastery climate

Nerstad’s doctorate study indicates that support from supervisors and experiencing good training, development and career-related opportunities are crucial factors for creating a mastery climate.

She has prepared six practical ways of creating a climate for good mastery experiences on the basis of sports research and educational science:

  1. Create meaningful tasks with sufficient variation.
  2. Provide creative challenges and opportunities for employees to participate in decision-making.
  3. Focus on encouraging inner motivation by emphasising development of expertise, self-determination and affinity (a “we belong” feeling).
  4. Avoid favouritism and only calling attention to the best. Look after the individual’s dignity.
  5. Evaluations should to a greater extent be conducted on the basis of commitment and self-development, not just a comparison with others.
  6. Set aside time to develop the talent inherent in the individual employee.


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