Panel Paper: In the Face of Failure: The Persistence of Pro-Social Motivations Under Conditions of Negative Feedback

Saturday, November 8, 2014 : 1:45 PM
Grand Pavilion IV (Hyatt)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

William G. Resh, University of Southern California and John D. Marvel, George Mason University
As performance management arrangements in the public sector proliferate, we see a coinciding increase in debates over what metrics constitute “performance” and varied interpretations of policy “success.” In a polarized political environment, public administrators and others tasked with policy implementation produce outcomes that one party or interest interprets as successes and others view simultaneously as failures. As a result, negative feedback in policy implementation is inevitable, which may diminish employee effort, morale, and the retention and recruitment of necessary talent. However, advancements in public management research have identified “public service motivation” (PSM) as a common characteristic of individuals who choose to enter careers in public or nonprofit service, separable from narrow policy advocacy or self-interested work motivations. In this study, we test the notion that individuals with higher PSM are more likely to persist in their efforts to deliver public services in the face of “failure.” In other words, we are interested in whether PSM is a durable trait.

We use a “real-effort” experiment—an experimental approach that is common in economics—to test this proposition: First, we have subjects complete an Implicit Association Test (IAT) and survey questions that measure PSM. Second, we provide a battery of organizational missions and ask subjects to rank the missions by salience and valence. Third, subjects perform our real-effort task for a set amount of time. Fourth, we randomly assign one of the previously ranked organizational missions and inform the subjects that they are working on behalf of a charity that advocates that given cause.[1] Fifth, we ask subjects whether they would like to earn more money for the charity by performing the task again. Finally, subjects are given negative feedback about their performance on this repeated task. These last two steps (offer to play again and negative feedback) are repeated up to five times (depending on the respondent’s willingness to keep playing).

We are interested in the interactive effect of PSM and mission-match on effort and persistence. We test the hypothesis that mission-match is less important for high-PSM people.  Low-PSM people, on the other hand, will persist in the face of negative feedback only when they identify narrowly with the mission of the charity they're playing for.

Our study purposefully trades off ecological validity for causal validity. By conducting a straightforward experiment, we provide a simple template for future research to build upon. We hope that non- or quasi-experimental studies will be able to use our results as the basis for research set in real world policy settings. Moreover, we believe that research in this area will provide a rich, empirically-validated theory of how context and feedback affect the motivation and morale of the people who implement policy; and thereby inform public and nonprofit sector recruitment, retention, and personnel policies.

[1] Specifically, we tell subjects we will donate $x.xx units of money to this charity for each unit of effort they exert on our task. (Subjects are able to verify that we actually donate this money by contacting our institutions’ IRBs).