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The Goldilocks contract: Improve parties’ performance by using kinder, gentler language? 

Tim Cummins, CEO of the International Association for Contract and Com­mer­cial Management, writes that “Contract success is directly impacted by the motiv­ation of the parties. Research increasingly shows that traditional forms of contract are demotivating and therefore can be directly responsible for under-performance. The way that terms are expressed, the extent to which they mandate specific actions and the degree to which they provide a relational structure are of particular importance.” (IACCM.org Nov. 27, 2017; emphasis added.) Tim cites academic research indicating that:

… [S]ubtle reductions in the specificity of a contract’s language can boost autonomy, which increases intrinsic motivation and improves a range of desirable behaviors.

Nine field and laboratory experiments found that less specific contracts increased task persistence, creativity, and cooperation, both immediately and longitudinally, because they boosted autonomy and intrinsic motivation.

These positive effects, however, only occurred when contracts provided sufficient structure. …

Eileen Y. Chou, Nir Galinsky, Adam D. Halevy, and J. Keith Murnighan, The Goldilocks contract: The synergistic benefits of combining structure and autonomy for persistence, creativity, and cooperation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(3), 393-412 (2017) (paywalled; emphasis added).

DCT comment:  I bought and read the Chou et al. “Goldilocks contract” paper; their hypothesis is intriguing and seems right, but their evidentiary support needs more work.

Still, I’m going to look for opportunities to soften imperious-sounding provisions in my contracts, along the same lines as my preference for using will instead of shall or must (for example, “Alice will pay Bob $100” instead of “Alice shall pay Bob $100”), for reasons explained in this post.

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