Exceptional Success & The Motivation to Learn

In trying to help leaders create organizations of excellence, we find they often have a challenge.  It is difficult for them to get their people to envision and pursue a better way.  Drawing from their conventional hierarchical experiences, the people, below the leader, cannot imagine a positive organization.  It is outside their experience.  Asking them to create a positive organization is simply an introduction of frustration.

Given this challenge, we have often recommended that leaders take their people to organizations that are already excelling.  Let the people see, hear, smell, and taste excellence.  Doing so, we argue, will challenge their conventional theories of practice.  When confronted with social excellence they have to open their minds to the patterns of excellence that disrupt their expectations.  On a number of occasions we have watched this strategy play out successfully.

Yet sometimes our position has been challenged.  Researchers in the area of learning tend to believe that people learn from failure and not from success.  The reasoning has been that failure holds attention while successes do not.

Recently a new study focused on the question of learning from exceptional performance.  The researchers argued that performance may be conceived in terms of failure, normal success, and exceptional success.  A normal success is within expectations and an exceptional success is well beyond expectations.  They give the example of a doctor in an emergency room.  If a patient comes in with a problem that always results in death, and a doctor innovates in some way, saving the patient, the case becomes an example of exceptional success.

The researchers did two studies to determine the impact of performance on one’s motivation to learn.  They found that that motivation to learn followed a U shaped curve.  Failure and exceptional success tend to generate the desire to learn.  Normal success is less likely to create the desire.

So the evidence suggests that exceptional performance in an area of interest stimulates the desire to learn.  In terms of application the researchers write; “If exceptional success motivates learning because it increases interest (as suggested by our exploratory results), then exceptional success is not only a cue for which ideas to pay attention to, but also a source of positive motivation that may help during an innovation process that might otherwise be difficult or frustrating.”

These findings support our proposed practice.  If you want people to pursue excellence in your organization, expose them to excellence that exists somewhere now, help them think through what they have observed, and then help them think about how to apply what they learned.


  • Do you desire to have your people exceed expectations?
  • Can your people imagine what it would look like to exceed expectations?
  • If you were to take your people to observe excellence, where would you go?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

One comment on “Exceptional Success & The Motivation to Learn

  1. Another outstanding post. To answer your 4 questions:
    1. Yes I desire myself, staff and coworkers to exceed expectations.
    2. No, I assume my people cannot imagine what it would look like. Of course I haven’t asked them.
    3. I have no idea where I’d take people to observe excellence. Perhaps Elon Musk and the Space team. They have to exceed to survive.
    4. Sharing this post with staff with an open mind and a willingness to hear can lead to a more positive organization.
    One of my favorite speakers is Simon Sinek, https://youtu.be/3vX2iVIJMFQ

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