Journal of Business and Psychology

, Volume 34, Issue 6, pp 791–802 | Cite as

Prime and Performance: Can a CEO Motivate Employees Without Their Awareness?

  • Alexander D. StajkovicEmail author
  • Gary P. Latham
  • Kayla Sergent
  • Suzanne J. Peterson
Original Paper


Work motivation research is at a crossroads with the discovery of the causal effects of primed subconscious goals in addition to those of consciously set goals on performance. Although social psychologists continue to demonstrate positive effects of primed goals on a multitude of dependent variables, priming research has been criticized for its lack of generalizability beyond tightly controlled laboratory experiments. Addressing this skepticism, a field experiment was conducted in a for-profit organization, where the CEO used goal priming to motivate job performance. A performance goal for achievement was primed with achievement-related words embedded in an email from the CEO to employees. The goal priming by the CEO necessitated little to no costs yet it increased objectively measured performance effectiveness by 15% and efficiency by 35% over a 5-day work-week. This field experiment illustrates a new alternative for increasing employee performance. In a second experiment, we conducted a conceptual replication of the field experiment in the laboratory with a larger sample size, and we extended theory by testing a measure of motivation level as a mediator of the primed goal-performance effect. The results affirmed the hypothesized motivational influence. These two experiments increase understanding of subconscious motivation processes.


Primed goals Conscious goals Job performance Subconscious motivation 



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Management and Human ResourcesUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA
  2. 2.Rotman School of ManagementUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  3. 3.W. P. Carey Management and EntrepreneurshipArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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