How Best-Self Activation Launches Sustained Performance Improvement - Ideas for Leaders
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How Best-Self Activation Launches Sustained Performance Improvement

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New research confirms that best-self activation — activating a mental representation of your best self — leads to short- and long-term improvement in performance. The research specifically highlights the positive emotional, physiological (e.g. resilience to stress), and cognitive impact of best-self activation.


Best-self activation is the deliberate effort to think the best of yourself. You can do this in one of two ways: 1) reflecting on situations in your history that show you at your best (e.g. highlighting your most impressive attributes), or 2) receiving stories and feedback from others that show you at your best. The latter option is known as reflective self-activation — your best-self activation occurs through a reflection of what others think and say about you.

A team of researcher conducted two laboratory experiments and one longitudinal study that highlighted the power of best-self activation.

In one experiment, 123 participants brought along one partner with whom they had a close relationship. One group of participants wrote up best-self activation stories about themselves, while the rest of the participants read stories about themselves written by their partners. The participants then completed a stressful job interview-related task.

This experiment showed that that people who engage in best-self activation perform better under stress than those who do not activate their best selves. The experiment also showed, however that people who benefit from reflective best-self activation (that is, best-self activation based on stories from others) perform better under stress than people who self-generated the material for their best-self activation.

In a second experiment, 75 participants were divided into a treatment group and a control group. Prior to the experiment, friends, families and colleagues of the treatment group wrote stories that highlighted the best selves of the individuals in the group. On the day of the experiment, the treatment group wrote up a self-general best-self activation narrative and also read the narratives submitted by friends, family and colleagues. The control group simply wrote about their daily routines. All participants were monitored during the experiment for various stress-related physiological effects by electrodes and sensors attached to their bodies. They were also questioned about their emotions at the beginning and end of the test. Finally, they also completed two tests of creativity.

The experiment showed that best-self activation led to more positive emotions, which in turn ‘undid’ the negative physiological effects that can be caused by stress and negative emotions. As a result, participants who activated their best selves were able to better perform under pressure.

The longitudinal study involved a series of surveys of 1400 newly hired consultants in the U.S. operations of a global consulting firm. The surveys were sent on day 1, day 30, day 90 and the year anniversary of their employment. The 1400 survey respondents were divided into three groups: 1) a group that activated their best selves through self-generated stories; 2) a group that activated their best selves through stories from others; and 3) a group that did not activate their best selves at all. The series of four surveys were intended to follow the journey of the consultants and see if their attitudes about their work became more transactional over time (that is, their original enthusiasm about the job and its possibilities transitioned into an attitude that the job was just a paycheck), and whether this drift into a transactional relationship with their employers translated to more burnout and intentions to quit.

The results of this field study proved the following:

  • New consultants’ attitudes toward their jobs (what the researchers called their “psychological contract narratives”) because increasingly transactional over their first year of employment.
  • Newcomers who received best-self activation were less likely to drift toward transactional narratives during their first year than newcomers who did not receive best-self activation.
  • Newcomers who received best-self activation were less likely to burnout and were less predisposed to quit than newcomers who did not receive best-self activation.
  • Best self-activation built on stories from others reduced the drift toward transactional narratives more than best self-activation built on self-reflection.


Personal development programs are often built on the concept of identifying and improving weaknesses. This research offers an alternative approach to improving performance by demonstrating the positive impact of helping people focus on the best of themselves. When people reflect on when they were at their best, they are mentally and physically more resilient to stress and negative emotions, and become more effective at creative problem solving and performing under pressure. In addition, the impact of best-self activation is significantly stronger when based on stories from others.

It’s important to differentiate between the power of positive thinking and the long-term impact of best-self activation discussed in this paper. The reduction of stress and the increased cognitive and creative ability that emerges from reflective best-self activation unleashes a continuous feedback loop: the first jolt of appreciation pushes people to improve their performance, which in turn generates more appreciation from others, which in turn inspires further improvement. In this way, best-self activation is more than a feel-good moment, but rather a process for long-term, sustained improvement. 



How Best-Self Activation Influences Emotions, Physiology and Employment Relationships. Daniel M. Cable, Francesco Gino, Jooa Julia Lee & Bradley R. Staats. Harvard Business School Working Paper (September 2015)

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Idea conceived

September 17, 2015

Idea posted

Nov 2015
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