How Assistant Professor of Management Samir Nurmohamed’s research on motivation and storytelling applies to everything from insect-based foods to motivating call center workers to teaching Wharton students.
Assistant Professor of Management Samir Nurmohamed is best known for his research on underdogs in the workplace. Existing research suggests low expectations can be detrimental to the performance of individuals and groups. But Nurmohamed is interested in how employees’ develop and find success when they encounter adversity or negative reactions from others. In his research, Nurmohamed has discovered low expectations can propel employees to greater heights by encouraging them to perform better and negate existing assumptions.
We sat down with Nurmohamed to discuss how underdog individuals and organizations derive the motivation to succeed, and what Wharton students can take away from his research.

Recently, you conducted research on how being an underdog in the workplace can foster motivation. How does this research apply to Wharton students?

In my research, I’m trying to unpack a broader and more complex understanding of when people don’t think we can do something, do we just internalize those expectations, or are we more likely to try to overcome those expectations?

I find in my research that people want to prove others wrong when they’re not expected to succeed by others or when they’re underestimated. But other research streams, for instance, have shown that this kind of incivility created by low expectations can lead to unethical behavior taking place. Thinking about how we respond to adversity can be both a positive and negative force, especially when we think about the workplace.

You have also researched companies that make insect-based foods. You’ve called them cultural entrepreneurs because they are underdogs in an industry or a society where people don’t accept it. What are the biggest challenges cultural entrepreneurs face and how can they overcome them?

In our research, we are finding that the story and rationale for why we should eat insects has very much stayed the same over time. People have talked about the benefits to sustainability, health, and how eating insects could help solve the food scarcity issue in many communities.

But despite the fact that the story of why we should eat insects has remained the same, a lot of cultural entrepreneurship research has assumed that for entrepreneurs to gain traction, they have to change the story. And what we’re finding is that the entrepreneurs who face cultural barriers can also gain traction without necessarily changing the underlying story and underlying rationale for why we should change the status quo.

What we’ve uncovered in our research through a series of qualitative interviews and also the collection of archival data is that what’s actually changed is these contextual features of the story. We call it “storytelling features.” And for instance, the storytellers have changed over time, so it’s no longer entomologists or scientists who are talking about the benefits of eating insects as food. Instead, it’s actually people we’d see in our everyday lives, such as people at the gym, those who embrace gluten-free diets, or people who have traveled to different parts of the world. Over time, the storytellers have become more diverse.

We also find that the storytelling props have very much changed. So before it was very common when eating insects you’d show the whole insect on your plate. You can imagine what kind of emotions that would have caused — disgust, repulsion, fear, shock. It very much cultivates this fear of the unknown.

Today, products are not only more varied, but they also hide the insect. You look at a protein bar, a cookie or a chip and you would have no idea that this product is made out of insects. This allows consumers to anchor on things that they already know and that’s helping reduce that fear and disgust.

Some of your other research is about motivation: could you distinguish between autonomous and controlled motivation?

When I was an undergrad, the assumption was that people were often extrinsically motivated. We’d call that controlled motivation. You’re motivated by carrots and sticks, for instance. At the other end of the continuum is autonomous motivation, this idea that you’re motivated by your curiosity, learning, exploration or fun.

My research thinks about motivation as not just one continuum where you’re either intrinsically motivated (i.e., have autonomous motivation) or you’re extrinsically motivated (i.e., you have controlled motivation). People can be both autonomously motivated and extrinsically motivated at the same time. What hadn’t been shown in prior research is that high intrinsic and high extrinsic motivation can backfire. We found that when initiative is undertaken with more pure autonomous motivation — meaning high on autonomous motivation but low on controlled motivation — you’re more likely to see performance benefits.

In your research, you found employees in call centers had higher revenues when they had higher autonomous motivation and lower controlled motivation. Are there any performance metrics Wharton students could improve upon with more autonomous motivation?

People often assume Wharton students are high on controlled motivation because symbols of extrinsic motivation are around us all of the time. We see rankings of the different universities or companies. We think about grades. We see a lot of this on the surface and in our environment, and then we see students applying for prestigious jobs in prestigious firms. However, I think it’s a much more complicated story than that. Thinking about my experiences as a professor in the classroom, I can say that a lot of students are really intrinsically motivated and actually are deeply curious about the material and the careers that they are pursuing.

If you think about the environment at Wharton, though, there is more we can do to benefit those who are more intrinsically motivated. Thinking about learning: we can cultivate people who are actually rewarded for taking new classes. We can structure the rewards and incentives a little bit differently so that it promotes development and skill acquisition. One of the ways that I try to do this in my classroom is that I actually don’t always reveal what the standard deviation and the mean grade is on assignments, because I want everyone to be focused on how they can improve themselves, rather than how they stand in relation to their classmates. When you introduce the mean and standard deviation, we’re arguably reinforcing symbols associated with extrinsic motivation. What I seek to do is create an environment where students’ intrinsic motivation is not crowded out, while still maintaining high standards.

– Caroline Harris and Jonathan Lahdo

Posted: April 2, 2018

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