Temporal landmarks — such as the first day of the year, a milestone birthday or the completion of a major project — can spark an attitude of renewed optimism in people that motivates them to seek out and achieve aspirational goals. Managers should take advantage of temporal landmarks to bolster employee development and achievement.
Why do so many people make New Year’s resolutions? Because the New Year is the most obvious and universal of temporal landmarks — the dates or periods in time that mark a meaningful transition or change. Anything from a birthday or an anniversary to the first day on a new job or even in a new apartment can be a temporal landmark. Temporal landmarks are usually accompanied by a psychological sense of renewal or reset; there is a clean slate, and the failures and disappointments of the past can be forgotten. This psychological reset motivates people to aspirational behaviours: they are ready and willing to tackle personal goals or engage in goal-related activities.
This new motivation is consistent no matter what type of temporal landmark is involved, as long as it is in some way meaningful. For example, if an individual has moved to a new apartment within the same city several times in the last few years, the next move to a new apartment will not be particularly meaningful. However, if an individual is new to the city, or is moving to his or her own apartment for the first time (after previously sharing with roommates), the temporal landmark becomes imbued with significance, and the individual experiences the psychological sense of breaking with the old self.
For employees, temporal landmarks can be a new year or the first day in a new position, but it can also be something less obvious. Even the arrival of a new manager could be a temporal landmark, enabling an employee to leave behind the constraints of a poor relationship with the previous manager and discover, instead, the freedom to pursue new ideas and goals.
Recognizing the psychological impact of temporal landmarks, managers can use them to help employees launch themselves toward aspirational goals and new achievements.
For example, if managers have developed tools and programs to help people reach certain goals, the best time to introduce these programs would be simultaneous to or just after a temporal landmark. Thus, a leadership program intended to help employees transition to management-level responsibilities could be offered to employees on a milestone birthday, such as their 30th or 40th birthday.
Another opportune time to intercede would be at a milestone event that marks a transition to a new performance cycle — for example, at the completion of a major project, when employees might be satisfied with their accomplishment, optimistic about their skills and knowledge, and open to new goals. (Or perhaps the history is different — the project was plagued by problems — but the result is the same: a sense of ‘reset’ and a clean slate that allows for optimism for the future.)
It is important to highlight the significance of the chosen temporal landmark, rather than just assume that the individual has accepted its significance or implication. For example, work anniversaries should be marked or celebrated in some way if they are to be used as temporal landmarks.
In addition, managers don’t have to wait for ‘natural’ temporal landmarks, such as a major birthday, work anniversary date or even the New Year, to launch aspirational programs. They can frame an otherwise insignificant landmark in a meaningful way to ‘nudge’ the employee to take on aspirational goals. The first day of spring, for example, is rarely linked in people’s minds to work; but just as spring marks a time of renewal and hope for nature, it can also be linked to a new hopeful ‘season’ for a company or a work unit.
There are many temporal landmarks to choose from. Sometimes, it just takes a little imagination.
Put Your Imperfections Behind You: Why and How Meaningful Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior. Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman & Jason Riis. Working Paper (June 2014).
Additional research has been published by the authors related to this topic. See: The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior. Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman & Jason Riis. Management Science (Articles in Advance, June 2014).
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