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Manage Adaptive Performance, Achieve Exceptional Outcomes

This article was based on episode 73 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the guest bonus when you become a member at

I like being nice. I’d venture to say that most people want to be seen by their colleagues as “being nice.” But nice isn’t the same as effective. Lindsay McGregor learned that early on in her career. In an incredible learning moment, a respected associate commented that she needed to figure out how to be nice and authentic, while at the same time helping people achieve more than they ever thought possible.

That moment inspired Lindsay and years later, she finally figured out how to do that.

Lindsay McGregor is the co-founder of Vega Factor, a startup building technology to help organizations transform their cultures, and co-author of Primed to Perform, How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. She is dedicated to helping organizations perform better by understanding people and their motivations.


  • Tactical Performance

  • Managing by codifying best practices, learnings and what’s worked well before via standard operating procedures, checklists, to-do lists and routines in order to keep everyone clear about what is to be done and how to do it. This approach emphasizes providing the best tools for making optimal decisions by repeating what’s worked well in the past.

  • Adaptive Performance

  • Managing by facilitating problem solving, creativity and learning in order to help team members grow, push boundaries, take risks, and innovate.

It’s easy to focus on tactical performance because it creates consistency, efficiency and may even be positively reinforcing (who doesn’t love checking off items on a checklist and feeling that sense of accomplishment?). Adaptive goals are intangible, and therefore more difficult to measure. Yet to achieve truly high performance, managers need to attend to both tactical and adaptive performance. Therefore, the fundamental challenge of management is figuring out how to articulate and balance both tactical and adaptive performance.


In her research, Lindsay found correlations between motivation and adaptive performance. There is a spectrum of motivations that drive all human beings.

The three most inspiring motivations for creative, growth-oriented behaviors are:

  1. Play: We do the work because we love the doing of it! When working, we are learning, curious, experimenting, and ‘in the zone’. The love of “play” explains why so many of us are captivated by hobbies.

  2. Purpose: We work because we care about the outcomes of our efforts, even though we may not find the work itself enjoyable. For example, we may cook because we care about having healthy, affordable meals at home even if we don’t find pleasure in the act of cooking.

  3. Potential: We work in order to achieve some second order outcome of the work, or in other words, for what the work makes possible for us. For example, a teacher may love creating new, engaging lesson plans on the way to a career in curriculum design.

Identifying where each person on the team finds play, purpose and potential, can produce measurable positive impact on your team’s outcomes. Yet unfortunately, most organizations and managers focus mainly on tactical performance and utilize motives which are destructive to adaptive performance overall.

Three indirect and negative motivations include:

  1. Emotional pressure: Work may be motivated by peer pressure, shame, guilt or fear of missing out (FOMO). We want to look good, or avoid looking bad, but the negativity does not allow us to do our best work.

  2. Economic pressure: We work in order to get a promotion, to achieve employee of the month, or to be included in that big sales conference. This ‘carrot and stick’ approach does not unlock true potential and instead often produces a bare minimum of results to achieve the reward.

  3. Inertia: Work is the process of unconsciously going through the motions with little ability to explain why. We do what we’ve always done, often without inspiration, and therefore little desire to do better.


Through research, Lindsay and her team have developed the concept of Total Motivation, or TOMO. The negative motivators can be subtracted from the productive ones, producing a TOMO for an individual or team. By measuring TOMO, you can predict how creative a team will be, how high their sales will be, or how high their customer experience will be. Unfortunately, many managers never learn to actively increase play, purpose, and potential

without using emotional pressure, economic pressure or allowing for inertia.

You can measure your own TOMO, survey your team’s TOMO, and measure your leadership TOMO style using the free surveys available on the website

Lindsay recommends giving your team a common language for describing motivations as a starting point. This will make it safer for them to engage in deep discussion on this topic. Remember, there are no inherently high or low TOMO people.


The most powerful way to boost TOMO is to create small changes that support learning inside of everyday procedures. Lindsay recommends working with your team to implement dozens of small experiments. People can have a lot of fun when what they’re already doing becomes a learning game. The fun itself is highly motivating.

In addition, people want to know they’re valued. It starts with having a clear mission or purpose statement for the organization in which the individual can see how their work helps realize the mission, but it’s even more powerful when the person feels indispensable to the team.

As a manager, you possess levers for changing someone’s TOMO through role design, routines and responsibilities, and professional development. This is often easier said than done because every person finds play, purpose and potential in something different. You must get to know your individual team members in order to build on their individual strengths and superpowers.


Get a complimentary conversation with one of Lindsay’s team members to map some next steps based on the outcomes of your team assessment when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at

This article was based on episode 73 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.




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