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The goal-setting theory of motivation

For when you need a kick in the pants

Meeples climbing obstacles

Your team has ambitious projects they want to achieve. Projects that have spent too much time in the backlog (cough, at least six months). You want to refine the training process for new hires, rewrite your company’s buyer personas, or finally redesign your old blog. 

So, how are you doing on all of your team’s objectives that are gathering dust? Not so great? Yeah, we get it. 

That’s because thinking of things you want to accomplish is the easy part (especially if you’re a dreamer, which we know you are). It’s when you actually need to make some progress or rally the team that the real sweat and hard work starts. 

Well, you ambitious thing you, that’s exactly where the goal-setting theory comes into play. Let’s roll up our sleeves and find out more so you can turn your lofty aspirations into a reality. 

What is the goal-setting theory?

If you’re feeling extra fancy, the formal name is the goal-setting theory of motivation. It was originally outlined and published in 1968 by American psychologist, Dr. Edwin A. Locke

In the simplest terms, the theory states that clear, well-defined, and measurable goals improve performance much more than vague objectives do. 

For example, setting a goal for your team like, “Win the company-wide desk decorating contest” will light a fire under all of you much more than an amorphous goal like, “Build a better team reputation.” 

Locke and a fellow psychologist outlined five different principles to help you on your quest for setting effective, motivating goals. So, don’t whip out the crepe paper and silly string quite yet. We’ll cover those principles in detail a little later.

Well-defined, and measurable goals improve performance much more than vague objectives do. 

Worth the effort: the advantages of goal setting

Many people fall into the trap of thinking of the goal-setting process as just a formality. After all, if you already have a rough idea of what you want to achieve, wouldn’t you be better off just jumping right in?

Not quite. Taking the time to think through your goals and check some boxes sets you up for success in a few different ways.

Gain clear direction

Imagine that you were going to set off on a road trip to somewhere specific. Would you head out without a map, GPS, or some idea of how to get where you want to go?

Probably not, because you’d waste a ton of time (and, let’s face it, experience a lot of frustration) aimlessly wandering. 

Goal setting works this same way. Thinking through the nuts and bolts of the finish line you’re trying to cross gives you clear direction so that you can make decisions, prioritize tasks, and manage your effort and energy in a way that serves that ultimate purpose.

Plus, dedicating enough time and thought to goal setting in the beginning keeps you focused on your objective as you move forward, so you don’t get thrown off by tangents and other pressing responsibilities.

Keep an eye on progress

One of Locke’s principles of his goal-setting theory is clarity, meaning you need to get specific about the goal you’re trying to achieve.

Instead of “focus more on team-wide wellness,” maybe you’ll set a goal of your team logging over one million steps on their fitness trackers for the month. Making your goal measurable in this way helps you better monitor your progress and keep yourself on track.

If you get halfway through the month and realize you’re only a quarter of the way there, you have a pretty clear indication that you need to step up your game and get some team-wide walks on the calendar.

Bask in the success

Is there anything more gratifying than the feeling you get when you know you’ve accomplished something that really mattered to you? It’s tough to get those same feels if you don’t actually set yourself up with something to achieve in the first place. 

There’s some science to this as well. When we achieve a goal, our brains release dopamine, aka the “feel good” neurotransmitter.

That doesn’t just have to happen once you’ve officially checked that goal off your list. The Progress Principle explains that taking even small steps or scoring minor wins throughout the process can be both motivating and meaningful.

Locke and Latham’s five principles of goal setting

Clipboard list

Now that you’re convinced of the benefits, let’s dig into the details of the goal-setting theory. 

In 1990, years after he published his original article, Locke teamed up with a fellow psychologist, Dr. Gary Latham, to publish the book, A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance.

This book supported Locke’s original findings about the power of clear and well-defined goals, which Latham had continued to study on his own. It also took things a step further by outlining five principles of successful goal setting.

Clarity

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: you need to get clear on your goal. 

Maybe you’ve heard of the SMART goal framework. Clarity means nailing the first two letters of the SMART acronym: specific and measurable. 

Let’s look at an example. Perhaps you head up the customer support team for your company, and you’re setting out to improve your customer service. What does that look like? Get specific with a statement like, “Reduce response time on a customer service ticket to 24 hours or less.”

Challenge

In order for a goal to truly be motivating, it needs to be tough but not totally impossible to achieve. As you’re working on setting your goal, make sure that you’re stretching yourself at least a little bit, but not so far as to set yourself up for failure.

For example, if you take a look at your existing customer service insights and notice that your average wait time for a response is already only 25 hours, you might want to push yourself a little more and revise your goal to 20 hours. 

Also, who says you have to wait until the end to celebrate? With each big step forward, reward yourself and your team to keep the momentum going. (Science says that you should!)

Maybe once you hit the 22-hour mark, take the team out to happy hour. When you’ve actually reduced wait times to 20 hours? Hand out some bonuses if your budget allows.

Commitment

If you want it, put a ring on it. In other words, if you want to celebrate nailing your goal, you must commit to it. 

How? Well, the rewards we already touched on can certainly help keep you and your team motivated. For big goals where the finish line and the rewards seem so far away, it might help to break projects down into smaller pieces. That way your wins are more immediate and pride in the work is more frequently felt. This can help you and the team up their dedication and maintain it over the long haul.  

It can also help to involve your team in setting the goal at the beginning. Getting their insights and opinions will not only help you set more targeted and beneficial goals, but will also boost their motivation and sense of commitment to that objective. 

What do they think is a reasonable response time to aim for? Are there other ways that they think your customer service could be improved?

Feedback

We’re all familiar with projects that have a goal post that keeps moving. People are rarely tight-lipped about shifting priorities, but that doesn’t mean that constructive feedback is a given. 

So plan for it. For your team-wide goals, schedule regular check-in meetings (whether as a group or one-on-one) to provide feedback and praise to your team members.

For your individual goals, set times (maybe it’s when you wrap up those smaller milestones you set) to check in with yourself and evaluate how you’re doing. Use this time to even determine ways you could be making even more meaningful progress.

Task complexity

Remember what we said about setting yourself up for success? It was about creating goals that help you push your limits but are still achievable. Here’s more advice: don’t muddy the waters. 

Keep your goals simple. Pick one core thing to work toward, such as reducing customer wait time instead of having your team also work on receiving higher customer feedback scores and raising your company reviews to five stars.

While you’re at it, check your timelines. Are they realistic? Do you and your team have the skills and resources to achieve your goal? If not, it might be time to bring in some reinforcements, whether that means hiring, outsourcing some tasks, or offering education and professional development.

Move those goals from “to-do” to “done”

The things you want to achieve will never stop bouncing around in your brain. But, you want to do more than dream up those objectives – you want to make them happen.

That’s exactly why the goal setting theory of motivation exists. It requires that you carefully think through your goal using five key elements:

  • Clarity
  • Challenge
  • Commitment
  • Feedback
  • Task complexity

Work your way through those, and you’ll set a goal that’s motivating instead of disheartening. And the best news of all? Before long, you’ll transform that goal into a reality. Look at you go!

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