Mind Over Matter

Self-Expression Has Power for Performance and Learning

When people connect themselves to a task through personalization they connect themselves to better performance, too.

New research published in an upcoming Journal of Marketing Research highlights the connection between the act of personalizing items and performance. Some related implications for learning leaders came to mind that I want to share.

In a March Scientific American article, Matthew Hutson wrote about several studies; all found that customization boosts performance. In them, researchers looked at how students worked and played when they used items they’d decorated to portray an aspect of themselves. The participants weren’t expecting any benefit from adding a personal touch to their implements, but they experienced some when they did.

They threw darts they customized with more precision, came up with more anagrams when using a personalized pen and played a beer-coaster flipping game better when they used a coaster that, like the others, had been customized. Hutson wrote that across the studies, the customizing increased performance by 25 percent with one caveat: the participants had to care about what they were doing to begin with, and the customization had to be related to the task at hand. For instance, decorating a pen with things related to writing would be more effective than decorating it with arbitrary smiley faces.

I definitely wasn’t motivated by this type of insight as a child and a teenager, I doodled on journals, applied stickers to name tags for my desks or picked a hot pink vinyl book cover to wrap my U.S. history textbook in. More often than not the illustrations and augmentations weren’t task related, but I imagine those symbols of ownership and identity did have some impact on how I approached my work.

For me, these recent studies on the value of personalization add a new dimension to the care some great educators take to encourage learners’ self-expression: It literally can affect how well they work. An experiment that author and business executive Judith E. Glaser ran years ago at her children’s school shows as much. The project, titled “Children’s World,” was a compilation of students’ stories and pictures that were ultimately gathered into one book. Creativity surged during the years “Children’s World” was published.

When Glaser and her team did a follow-up to see what if any relationships could be drawn between the projects and the student’s social-emotional and academic development, they found something similar to the recent studies on personalization that started this piece. Though “Children’s World” ran only a few years, the number of students who were later accepted by top universities was measurably more than in the years before and after the projects were held.

I realize there are some glaring differences between “Children’s World” and the more recent studies on personalization, but what the two have in common is self-expression.

The research promoting self-expression in young people is voluminous but harder to come by when talking about adults. Still it is just as important for them in life and at work. A few years back, Bradley Staats of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School found that emphasizing self-expression and personal identity during company onboarding rather than placing a heavy focus on skills training and organizational identity resulted in lower turnover rates, greater employee job satisfaction and improved operational performance down the road.

What person wouldn’t feel inclined to give their best when right out the gate a company is rooting for them to bring and share their uniqueness? It’s not too much of a leap to transfer this logic to how learning and development professionals should create environments where employees can safely bring their unique identities and experiences to the table, be accepted for them and consequently be inspired to dig in and learn.

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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