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Libby Marks

Primed to Perform: A 9-Minute Book Summary

Learn the art and science of building high performing teams with our summary of Primed to Perform by Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi.

When Edwin Jansen, CEO and business transformation legend, recommended Primed to Perform in our Putting the Human into Resource Management webinar, we knew we had to read it. 

Authors Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor explain employee motivation with crystal clarity and relatable real-world examples. And they do it in a way that’s easy to read, understand, and - most importantly - implement. 

Primed to Perform is the ultimate handbook for business leaders and human resource professionals who want to build an adaptable, agile, high-performing workforce. 

Read this New York Times bestseller, and you’ll learn: 

  • How businesses tip the balance too far toward tactical performance alone
  • Why adaptive performance is the key to sustainable success and growth
  • How to design roles to inspire motivation, innovation, and engagement
  • How to swap ineffective indirect motivators for direct ones that work

We’ve summarized the key concepts to give you an overview. Let’s go.

Part 1: What is total motivation (ToMo)?

ToMo and the six reasons we work

The introductory part of the book explains the concept of ‘total motivation’ or ‘ToMo.’ Total motivation is the highest level of employee motivation that an organization can achieve. One that leads to more engagement, productivity, and innovation.

To understand - and calculate - total motivation, we first need to know ‘the six reasons why people work’ - the factors that combine to increase or decrease employee motivation.

According to the authors - and the past academic studies they build upon - there are three direct motivators and three indirect ones. 

Direct motivators at work


Play is when you engage in an activity simply because you enjoy it. This is what’s known as intrinsic motivation. At work, ‘curiosity and experimentation are at the heart of play’. People who enjoy their work and want to play with different ways of doing things are the most highly motivated. 


Purpose is when you do an activity because you value the outcome of the activity. You might not enjoy the work itself but it is meaningful work that aligns with your personal values. 


Potential is when you work because it can get you closer to where you want to be. For example, becoming a paralegal to help get into law school. Filing legal documents might not fulfill your play motivator, but you keep working because, one day, being a lawyer will.

Indirect motivators at work

Emotional pressure

Emotional pressure is when negative emotions like disappointment, guilt, or shame compel someone to work. Emotional pressure is motivating - but in a bad way. 

When people work because of emotional pressure, the motivation isn’t connected to the work itself, so their performance tends to suffer.

Economic pressure

Economic pressure is when you perform an activity solely to achieve a reward or avoid punishment. For example, working in a job you don’t enjoy simply because it pays well. 

If money is the sole reason you’re participating in an activity, it will typically diminish performance, say Doshi and McGregor. 


Inertia is when ‘you do what you do simply because you did it yesterday. This leads to the worst performance of all.’ This is a common motivator where people stay in the same job because they can’t think of anything else to do. Many organizations celebrating low turnover may actually have an inertia problem.

ToMo calculator

Total motivation occurs when you maximize direct motivators and minimize indirect ones.

Your ToMo score is the sum of your direct motivators, minus the sum of your indirect motivators. However, it’s not quite that simple. Not all motivators are created equal.

That’s why the authors have applied a multiplier to the different motivators. There’s a simple six-question calculator in the book to work out your ToMo - or survey your employees. You can also sign up and take it online.

Part 2: How does total motivation drive performance?

This section focuses on what performance means - and introduces two types of performance that you need to balance in your business.

  • Tactical performance is how well your people adhere to organizational processes, policies, and rules - to do their given job and deliver expected results. It comes from strategy.
  • Adaptive performance is how well they diverge from those policies and rules - to adapt to emerging situations, seize opportunities, and overcome challenges. It comes from culture.

Tactical and adaptive performance are complementary forces that need to be present in equal measure for high performance. 

Strategy helps us focus all our energy on a few critical targets. It is a force of strength. Culture allows us to react to the unpredictable. It is a force of agility. Together they create a complete view of performance.

Freeze or adapt

Neel and McGregor explain that adaptive performance is essential because it determines what happens when your strategy fails. They use the military acronym - VUCA - to describe the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the business world. 

Not a single moment in your organization is predictable. Your organization needs to adapt at every level all the time. 

When hit with VUCA, ‘does your organization freeze or adapt?’

  • If you’ve focused too much on tactical performance, it can freeze. 
  • If you’ve instilled adaptive performance, it can flourish. 

This concept is expanded on in section three of the book, which says ‘when we most need fluid organizations, we freeze them instead’. It talks through different phases of the organizational lifecycle and how adaptability is key throughout. 

Direct motivators and adaptability

Deel and McGregor find that adaptive performance and direct motivators go hand in hand. Employees motivated by ‘play’ and ‘purpose’ are more likely to be intellectually curious, open to experimentation, and dedicated to finding ways for the business to thrive. 

They argue that maximizing people’s direct motivators - to create high ToMo - creates a culture where adaptive performance thrives. This delivers a significant competitive advantage in high VUCA environments.

A high-performing culture is the system that maximizes adaptive performance through total motivation. Its goal: adaptive performance. Its mechanism: total motivation. Its tools: the keys of culture.   

Continue reading: The 8 Factors All High-Performing Teams Have in Common

Part 3: Why are there so few great cultures

The next section of Primed to Perform explores why there are so few great organizational cultures. 

Reading the book, you’ll begin to understand the complexity that organizational culture-builders face. So there’s no blame here.

But there is often blame within an organization. More specifically, blame bias. 

Blame bias refers to the tendency to assign blame for failures or mistakes to individuals rather than considering systemic or contextual factors. 

This undermines adaptive culture and direct motivators because employees are scared to take risks and are under emotional pressure. 

There’s also no incentive for organizational reflection or continual improvement. The flawed logic is that if the problem is the individuals, there’s no need to look at the culture. 

The blame bias affects the way we run organizations. Because blame bias causes us to blame the player, not the game, we focus on prodding the players, not changing the game. The easiest way to prod is through indirect motivators. We concoct more potent sticks and carrots. This strategy of blame and indirect motivators is fruitless.

The authors provide several examples of how blame bias and indirect motivators actually undermine performance and culture. And quote academic studies that show the assumption of individual poor performance is proven to be a self-fulfilling prophecy - leading to motivators that decrease performance. 

However, the opposite is also true.

The Pygmalion Effect is the flipside of blame bias. Once blame is eliminated, expectations increase and a leader more naturally uses the principles of total motivation, which inevitably improves performance.

So there is hope.

Part 4: How can you build a high ToMo culture?

This is where the authors provide actionable advice for ambitious business leaders and resource managers. 

They talk about the strategy and tactics of building a high ToMo, highly adaptive, high-performance culture. 

We can only skim the surface, but here it goes.

Become a firestarter

The authors discuss leadership styles and ask whether you are a leader who uses direct or indirect motivators. 

They describe four types of leaders and the average ToMo score of their teams. 

Quid pro quo 

They reward good behavior and punish bad. They have good intentions and are trying to build a meritocracy. But they produce high levels of indirect motivation. Average ToMo score of -1.  


They stay out of the way unless there’s a problem, mistaking the need for autonomy as a need to be left alone. They don’t use indirect motivation…but they don’t use direct motivation either. This leaves their people floundering. Average ToMo score of 11.


They are equal opportunities when it comes to motivators. They want the best from their people and will use direct and indirect motivators equally. The problem is…they cancel one another out. Average ToMo score of 14.


They maximize total motivation by using direct motivators to get the best from their people - and minimize indirect motivators that hold them back. Average ToMo score of 38. Top ToMo score from leading 5% = 60.

The lesson here is clear. Change how you motivate your team, become a firestarter, and watch your people burn brighter.

In a later chapter, they discuss fire watchers - people tasked with taking this leadership style forward in your organizational culture, so it exists even when a particular leader moves on. 

Have a strong identity

To engage the play and purpose motivators, your organization needs a clear and compelling ‘why’ - and so do your people. Doshi and McGregor call this ‘identity’.

When we measured the strength of an organization’s identity and compared that to its total motivation, we found a 65-point swing in ToMo between people working for an organization with a strong identity compared to [...] a weak one.

They go on to explain that your organizational ‘why’ clearly drives the purpose motive. But also unlocks play. Because when people are clear on your organizational objective, they need less micromanagement. They can see how their work contributes to that objective and can adapt to fulfill it.

However, they also need to know the guardrails. These can be baked into your organizational identity through your behavioral code. 

Avoid bland ‘restatements of basic human values’ like honesty and integrity, advise the authors. Create a behavioral code that covers problem-solving, prioritization, and conflict resolution. This will allow you to ‘leave your people to make their own decisions and for the company to trust that those decisions will be made appropriately.’

Create opportunities to play

Play means approaching work in a relaxed, curious, and experimental way, so you can novel ways of doing things. 

The play motive isn’t about gamification of having more parties. Play is directed toward giving people the ability to experiment in areas that have the greatest need for adaptability, whether that’s customer service, product design, or operations.’

This is where the concept of the playground comes in. A playground is a safe space at work where people have the time and consent to be experimental. It might be

  • A literal space where people can come together to bounce ideas off one another
  • An area of autonomy where people can test ideas without fear of failure
  • The psychological safety for people to think differently and share ideas

You can build a playground through your culture - providing guardrails, autonomy, and permission to fail in pursuit of improvements. 

But it also needs building into jobs through thoughtful role design. 

Role design needs to give people end-to-end ownership of processes - so they can see areas of improvement and own their impact. And should also specify personality traits - and test for behaviors - to find curious, collaborative, experimental individuals. 

When designing your roles, think about what qualities you need for adaptive performance and experimentation. Get a good fit and your future financials will thank you.

Pick your opponents 

Your people can either fight each other to survive or fight their competitors to win. Your culture drives the choice.

This is the bold opener to chapter 11, which argues that internal competition is a dangerous distraction.

In the world before ToMo, some people suggested pressure was a good thing. They argued career paths should be designed like tournaments, in which people compete for promotions [...] But as pressure and indirect motivators increase, people compete against one another rather than the true competition.

When internal mobility becomes gladiatorial, instead of doing work for play or purpose, you’re doing it for economic or emotional pressure. Competitive career paths make people focus on how to get promoted rather than how to do good work.

So how can you help people grow and progress? And without directing great minds away from their passion (such as software engineering) and into management positions (that they might hate and suck at)?

The authors describe ‘the land of a thousand ladders’ - a workplace where each person has their own individualized career ladder. 

When [organizations] provide career ladders for every role, they set the expectation that everyone will be constantly learning, growing, and increasing their contribution to the company. Not only will your people be happier, their performance will increase as they become experts in areas that matter to your organization.

There are four guiding principles.

  • Bring Your Own Ladder - Rather than stipulating a career path, let people design their own. 
  • Aspiration points - A ladder has to be worth climbing. Create ‘aspiration points’ that people actually aspire to - not just a one-size-fits-some management job.
  • Define the rungs - Clearly define the skills and values required for each step up - so that ladders are unique but equitable. 
  • Reward with ToMo - If you can’t provide upward progression, reward people with greater opportunities for play, purpose, and potential.

Get compensation right

The authors challenge ‘compensationism’ which believes that performance-based pay is the key to high motivation. 

In fact, the authors say that performance-based pay causes indirect motivators to increase (emotional and economic pressure) which can reduce overall motivation.

Plus, they can cancel our direct motivations. 

They discuss how performance-based pay in commercial banking led to an increase in bad loans. At the bank, bonuses were awarded for approving more loans and doing so faster. 

While this increased tactical performance (working faster), it undermined adaptive performance (making wise decisions). It also canceled out ‘citizenship’, which is acting in the best interests of the customer and the company. 

Although it sounds like this proves performance-based pay is bad, it’s more nuanced. 

Like all motivators, pay-for-performance is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. The key to building a high ToMo organization is knowing when it works and when it doesn’t.

You can find out how to determine that in chapter 12 of the book.

Final thoughts on Primed to Perform

We could go on and explore the final chapters of the book but - we hope - you’ll be inspired to do that for yourself.  

This wonderfully readable book provides concrete steps to transform underperforming workplaces into hotbeds of engagement and innovation. 

The authors weave together real-world business examples - from the likes of Toyota, Starbucks, Apple, Whole Foods, and more - with compelling academic research and evidence. The result is a truly engaging read.  

We hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.

Listen to Edwin Jansen talk about Primed to Perform, role design, and resource management in our on-demand webinar Putting the Human into Resource Management.

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