Ability vs. Motivation: “Can Do” vs. “Will Do” Job Performance (Part I)

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Companies spend a good deal of money trying to attract and retain highly competent employees. Why wouldn’t they? There’s plenty of evidence showing that ability or intelligence (in cognitively demanding jobs) are the best predictors of job performance (Schmidt et al., 1992). That said, let’s not forget about the power of motivation and it can compensate for lack of ability.

 

One of my favorite motivation-related quotes comes from Calvin Coolidge – the 30th President of the United States:

 

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.” (see www.pbs.org)

 

There’s clearly a difference between one’s ability (what one “can do”) and one’s motivation (what one is “willing to do”). While this may seem like common sense, you may be surprised to find that when it comes to job performance, the correlation between these two variables is negligible — in other words, there’s no guarantee that just because a person is capable of doing a good job, that he/she will.

 

Cronbach (yes, the same guy who formulated Crobach’s Alpha for estimating test reliability) was one of the first to distinguish between what he called “typical” vs. “maximum” performance (Cronbach, 1970). He suggested that this distinction be taken into account when mapping out the job performance space and designing performance appraisals.

 

To see how closely one’s capability (can-do job performance) matches one’s motivation (will-do job performance), a team of researchers examined the performance of 1,370 supermarket cashiers (Sackett, Zedeck, & Fogli, 1988). Performance here was obtained by keeping track of speed (items scanned per miniute) and accuracy (number of voids due to error) of grocery items rung-up by each cashier.

 

Cashiers’ performance was examined under two different conditions. In the first, cashiers were told that they would be observed and that their goal was to achieve both high speed and high accuracy. In the second condition, no observers were present and data were collected solely through electronic scanning machines without the knowledge of cashiers. In both conditions, the exact same 25 grocery items were included in the shopping cart.

 

Results showed a correlation of .16 in the first sample and .36 in the second sample. In other words, at best, the performance correspondence between what one “can do” and what one is “willing to do” is only low to moderate.

 

This brings us to the question of ability versus motivation. Obviously, the best case is when an organization hires an employee who is highly capable and highly motivated (I’m talking about natural motivation and not just high motivation during the honeymoon period or the first few months on the job). The worst case scenario is when a company hires someone who has low ability and low motivation — this, by the way, is a hopeless situation. However, for the other two remaining combinations (high ability + low motivation; low ability + high motivation), there is some hope of compensating for either insufficient ability or motivation.

 

In the next article, I’ll discuss what companies can do to address the high ability + low motivation employee and low ability + high motivation employee.


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