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Paul Baard's Motivation Matters: Goals motivate, when used properly

October 15. 2017 9:12PM

It has been well established that workers’ goals have an impact on their motivation. How goals are handled makes a difference in outcomes.

A substantial amount of research has focused on how the handling of goals impacts the type of motivation an employee experiences. Self-motivation, the most desirable type, is characterized by persistence in the face of obstacles and setbacks. But how do you avoid having goals become a controlling force, which can readily shift an employee’s motivation from intrinsic (or self-motivation) to less-effective, manipulative forms of motivation (which have been found to be detrimental both to performance and health)?

A leader is likely to be very aware of his own objectives (e.g., profit levels, sales results, employee retention rates, etc.), but this is not necessarily so for those under him. “Do the best you can” — stated explicitly or implicitly — has proven to be largely ineffective in supporting excellence in performance. Contests and incentives intended to reward top performers have also been shown to be problematic, especially in organizations trying to develop a culture of mutual support and collaboration.

Here are some variables to consider in assessing the job you, as a manager, are doing with the handling of goal-setting for your people, in light of research findings on their effect on motivation:

1. The psychological need to succeed.

In setting targets, there is the risk that some of your people will set overly-aggressive ones, perhaps hoping you will get the sense this person is heading into a high-achievement year, and that an extraordinary pay increase may be warranted. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, some might set low-ball goals, hoping to make achieving them a snap. These mistaken objectives need to be corrected by the manager, who must oversee the entire team’s achievements to arrive at a profitable outcome.

The fact is that for goals to be effective, the research strongly suggests they need to be optimally challenging — neither too difficult (which causes anxiety and fear of failure) nor too easy (which leads to boredom). Concrete, measurable targets work better than general, nonspecific ones, especially when employees can monitor their own progress. Ongoing feedback from the boss, assertively offered, enables workers to make needed adjustments, enhancing prospects of success.

2. The psychological need to collaborate.

The concept of a team approach to leadership now enjoys widespread support, at least as far as the declaration of intentions goes. Also, global competition demands high levels of adaptability. Some remarkable achievements in the world of professional sports attest to the superiority of a team approach in pursuing lofty goals, such as world championships.

Be sure to take into account each individual’s role in delivering his or her portion of the stated goals. While receiving timely feedback is essential in order to help all to achieve, care must be taken to minimize the controlling aspect of the process. Coming alongside of a subordinate while discussing goals is more conducive of being in a coaching role than sitting opposite one another. Of course, if there appears to be a lack of buy-in, going head-to-head might be required.

3. The psychological need to “own” one’s work.

One of the ingredients of intrinsic or self-motivation — the drive found superior to other types, such as extrinsic motivation — is the experience of ownership of one’s work responsibilities. Workers want to feel a sense of having some influence over how their work gets done. Empowerment is another way of describing not being excessively controlled. Rules and expectations are, of course, part of the everyday world of work. But these limitations need not be enforced with an air of excessive control. Worker participation in goal-setting is key to “buy-in.”

When setting achievement targets for the coming year, it is best to work with individual subordinates on what makes sense for his or her work load, as well as skill set.

Adaptability to change is essential for a goal-setting plan. IBM founder Thomas Watson offered: “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” With the intensely competitive marketplace which is today’s business norm, flexibility is required. Astute managers with empowered, motivated teams are the best assurance for enduring success. When goals and standards are perceived as reasonable, yet challenging, you create an environment that inspires self-motivation in your workers. Involving people in the process of setting those goals helps ensure that.

Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation, with Fordham University, a former senior line executive in the television industry, and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at


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