May 13, 2016

What makes us tick at work?

Many of us devote a huge chunk of our lives to work. Justin Weinhardt devotes a huge chunk of his life to studying what makes us work at work – including motivation, decision-making, confidence and corporate training.

Justin Weinhardt, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business, is an expert in human resources and organizational psychology. Using complex models to look at human behaviour and how we work, Weinhardt delves into motivation, decision-making, entrepreneurship, overconfidence, ethical judgments, emotions, training and psychometrics, and creates knowledge that helps us all to operate better in the workplace. His extensive research furthers our understanding of motivation and decision-making and how these processes can change over time.

“I’ve seen many engineers, lawyers, chiropractors who are amazing at what they do but they don’t know how to lead, motivate teams or make basic business decisions,” says Calgary marketing consultant Kari Viccars, who reads Weinhardt’s columns as part of her personal study of business. “The best leaders I know tend to be well versed in business theory and are continuously learning.”

More training = more profit

Employee training takes a lot of money, time and effort. Often, when times are tough, companies are tempted to cut expensive training programs to save money. But research shows that’s a very short-sighted strategy. 

“Companies that spend more on training have greater profits,” says Weinhardt. “When you have a good training program it’s definitely more expensive and people initially want to slash their budgets during a recession. But it will propel you out of a recession faster if you’re training employees and engaging in this training process.”

Weinhardt’s research has examined the different types of people who succeed in corporate training. He found that people with higher intelligence and a desire to learn new things are more likely to engage in training. But confidence plays a role too. “If you don’t think you will succeed at the training, or you don’t think the training will help you be promoted in the organization, you won’t really engage in the training,” he says. “If you’re forced to go – if it’s mandatory – people will play on their phones the entire time.”

“When you have a good training program it’s definitely more expensive and people initially want to slash their budgets during a recession. But it will propel you out of a recession faster if you’re training employees and engaging in this training process.”

For training to be effective, Weinhardt says, employees have to believe it’s important to their managers and the corporation as a whole. “If organizations value training, they put resources toward it, they put time toward it, they give people time off to engage in the training," he says. "Managers will say ‘Our training program is very important, it’s just as important as your job.' That makes people more likely to engage in training and it makes people more successful.”

Even those people who are really engaged in training can see their motivation “wax and wane” over the course of the program. “Initially, everyone’s really excited, ‘we’re going to do this,’” says Weinhardt. “But if the training is boring, too difficult or too easy, people become disengaged and then they don’t work as hard.”

Things to remember:

  • Invest in training in good times and bad. Good training can help propel a company out of the economic doldrums
  • Value the training. Show your employees that the training program is important to managers and the company
  • Don’t force it. Making training mandatory can be a waste of time because employees are more likely to engage with their phones or do something else than the training

Does confidence help or hinder job performance? 

Most management gurus will tell you that confidence is one of the keys to success in the workplace. The story goes that more confidence will bring better performance, greater motivation and more influence over the people around you. That’s why organizations devote significant resources to trying to boost their employees’ confidence with training programs or “big motivational speeches.”

But those speech-makers could be wasting their breath.

“There’s generally this belief that the more confident you are the better you will succeed,” says Weinhardt. “But what we’ve found is that it can sometimes backfire. When people become overconfident they don’t put enough effort into their work.”



Weinhardt’s recent research shows that when people have too much confidence, and they become overconfident, they will try to accomplish tasks even when there is less than a five-per-cent chance of actually succeeding. “They’ll even risk monetary incentive to go after really risky tasks in which it’s almost impossible for them to succeed,” he says. “And if we are overconfident, we don’t put in enough resources and we don’t succeed on those tasks.”

On the other hand, a little less confidence and a little more self-doubt can go a long way toward improving your performance and your motivation for the task at hand. “The idea is that having this little self-doubt will motivate someone to maybe over-prepare and put in the extra effort.”

Another study Weinhardt conducted shows that overconfidence on the job can also lead people to plan their days badly. “What we found is people engage in what they call the ‘planning fallacy,’" he says. "They think things are going to take a lot less time than they actually do. When you’re overconfident that’s even worse.”

The trick is to find the sweet spot of confidence. You need some, but not too much.

Hey, wait a minute: Rethinking that snap decision

Common wisdom says to ‘go with your gut’ when it comes to making decisions. But a study by a number of researchers at the Haskayne School of Business and Carnegie Mellon has found that your gut may not be delivering the best information to make good decisions.

The study into ‘decision bias’ found that people who make more intuitive snap judgments don’t perform as well on operation management tasks as those who are more thoughtful. Relying on intuitive reasoning over analytical reasoning can lead to “a number of judgment and decision-making errors,” Weinhardt says. He studied people making decisions about “stock flow relationships” in managing operational systems.

Relying on intuitive reasoning over analytical reasoning can lead to “a number of judgment and decision-making errors."

Understanding stock flow means understanding how resources accumulate and the flows of resources that change their levels over time. People working in operations management commonly make decisions without analyzing the “accumulations” that exist. For example, if you work in inventory management at a grocery store and you order bananas based on how many bananas sold last month, and they don’t sell this month, you’ve wasted money. 

In the world of managing maintenance systems, it’s important to understand the equipment is “accumulating” the need for maintenance. Planning for this and scheduling regular maintenance ahead of time to keep equipment running smoothly is more efficient than having to call in the crews to repair things when they suddenly break down.

“This could have big financial implications,” says Weinhardt. “These simple decision processes have a pretty substantial effect on people’s business life. Most people won’t even realize how they make decisions.”

Things to remember:

Think about how you make decisions:

  • Intuitive reasoning is characterized by spontaneous and emotional decisions with little conscious deliberation
  • Analytical reasoning is characterized by deliberate and effortful thinking where initial reactions are overridden
  • When you use deliberate reasoning over intuitive, you will make more accurate decisions


We make our own luck

It’s part of the fabric of pretty much every workplace that hard work and perseverance pays off. “In North America, a lot of people think that the absolute best, the top, top candidates got there completely through their hard work,” says Weinhardt. “They put in more effort or they’re smarter and that’s what causes this elite level of performance.”

But it turns out that’s not really how it works. The people who get to the top tend to start out there, too. Weinhardt’s research shows there are a number of different processes that allow someone to reach the pinnacle of success, including who your parents are.

“If you’re born into the right family, if you’re born into a wealthier family, you have a much higher likelihood of graduating college,” Weinhardt says. “That kind of creates the cycle that people who are from successful families become more successful. And when you get into organizations, those who become more successful are given more resources and then with more resources you can become even more successful.”

It’s a feedback loop. And it can start long before the boardroom.  Say you play hockey as a kid and you’re good. Other players will want to play with you and you’ll get more ice time than others – more resources devoted to you – and you’ll probably get better. “As you become successful people identify that about you and then they give you more which helps you become even more successful,” says Weinhardt, “It’s just a feedback process.”

 “As you become successful people identify that about you and then they give you more which helps you become even more successful. It’s just a feedback process.”

Your education, genes and family socioeconomic status can have a significant impact on your work life. Some people may argue that whether you succeed or fail at work is entirely your own doing. But in both cases, Weinhardt says, you need to explore the role of genetics, family, environmental factors, and yes, even luck. So, to some degree, you make your own luck.

Sometimes it’s random. Luck of the draw. The family you’re born or where you’re born and all these things really relate to what is actually an elite top performer,” he says. “Then, people recognize that you’re doing really well and then they give you more stuff and that really propels you to be elite.” While you can work hard to overcome family or genetic adversity, it’s “an uphill battle” with less-than-great odds for succeeding. Weinhardt says that the single most effective way to improve your socioeconomic status is through education, and that increasing access to education will lead to a bigger and more educated workforce, and with it, a more stable economy.

Things to remember:

  • Consider performance. Your success, or lack thereof, may be influenced by more than your work
  • Check the feedback loop. When assessing success, consider whether a person’s background had a role to play
  • Get educated. Education is the single best way to improve your socioeconomic status


Outside the workplace

“Although Justin’s research is generally set in a job-related environment, his work is applicable to a manner of different settings and situations,” says Aidan Dumaisnil, one of Weinhardt’s graduate students.

The first-year PhD student says she’s learned how computational models demonstrate complex concepts and reduce them to their essential elements, providing “a novel lens” to see the world. She says Weinhardt’s work has meaning outside the workplace.

“We can apply his research to our day-to-day lives, which influences what we make of the world around us,” says Dumaisnil. “We seek to make sense of the world, in every situation, and Justin’s research allows us to do just that.”


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Dr. Justin Weinhardt, PhD, is assistant professor in the human resources and organizational dynamics area at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. His research focuses on understanding how motivation and decision-making change over time. Justin’s other research interests include computational modeling, motivation, decision-making, entrepreneurship, overconfidence, ethical judgments, emotions, training and psychometrics. Find a listing of Justin's academic papers here.

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