What Keeps You from Attaining Goals?
Issue 50: April 7, 2022
Any transformation, transition or change requires setting and attaining goals. But does the end justify the means? In other words, do we focus so acutely on the goals we set that we lose sight of whether the goals move us forward to what we aspire to? How do we ensure our goals are worthy and relevant? How often do we mistake a goal for intention? A goal has a measurable outcome. An intention is about feelings. So, consider this: I want to create an environment in which everyone feels safe and secure in striving to attain our goals. That is the intention with a goal at its best. Let’s dive into the human defaults that influence how we conceptualize and set goals, what we assign as goals, and how to create shared goals and measure the outcomes.
As there is a theory for everything, goal theory is an intellectual and psychological construct created by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham to understand how goals influence an individual’s behavior and how behavior and thought processes influence how we understand goals. “Goal setting theory is based upon the simplest of introspective observations, specifically, that conscious human behavior is purposeful. Goals not only affect behavior as well as job performance, but they also help mobilize energy which leads to a higher effort overall. Higher effort leads to an increase in persistent effort,” according to Locke. Increases in effort take energy, something we are programmed to conserve via our evolutionary defaults. Setting goals that use up our energy reserves, then, seems counterintuitive. But we are full of contradictions, particularly in what motivates us and which part of ourselves (our conscious or subconscious mind) makes decisions.
“Goals help motivate us to develop strategies that will enable us to perform at the required goal level. Accomplishing a goal can either lead to satisfaction and further motivation — or frustration and lower motivation if the goal is not accomplished. Goal setting can be a very powerful technique, under the right conditions,” as encapsulated by Leslie Riopel, Professor of Psychology at Northwood University.
We have all witnessed individuals or teams who are so dedicated to achieving their goals that their behavior changes; they may be more aggressive, less empathetic and more single-focused. Such a single focus in an organizational context may run counter to, mitigate or completely ignore other goals and those who are working on them. This is not an optimistic and all-encompassing systems-focused state of mind for healthy group dynamics or an organization’s shared purpose. A more constructive default mindset is that employees become energetic, excited, focused and optimistic in how their work and energy expenditure toward a goal contributes to the overall system and shared purpose of an organization.
If you unpack goal theory, Locke identified two levels of orientation that affect goal setting and how we mentally process, react and experience goal attainment.
- Mastery orientation is a desire to master a subject matter for the sheer act of learning. In our current societal context, there has been much discussion on lifelong learning and the value it brings, including improving our mental outlook and how we view the world. Mastery is also viewed as a means to an end that leads to accomplishment to do something better, score higher grades, excelled work performance, and over exceed one’s own expectations.
- Performance orientation is motivated by external forces (your manager, supervisor, co-workers, friends, children, spouse and so on). It is based on the perception that is held and derived by others of an individual to be better, smarter, stronger. It is focused on looking good — in fact, better than others. In turn, performance-oriented individuals expect positive feedback that confirms their actions and motivates their goal attainment.
Performance orientation is what can cause disruption and toxicity in the workplace as seeking the glory and positive confirmatory feedback from others comes at the expense of others since it is individual not group focused. The organization may partially benefit but communal shared purpose is compromised and motivation for everyone else can be negated and extinguished.
What motivates performance and how does it change behavior? Here is a real-life example.
The sales team leader is under pressure to deliver its results and is struggling. The leader has yielded to temptations to cut corners in transparent reporting; making excuses; misrepresenting the sale to clients in order to get the sale; becoming anxious and fearful around the team; and playing the manager so as to be seen as trying hard in order to improve his or her perception. Any activity that is related to cheating or inappropriate behavior is based on the high anxiety of self-preservation and desperation to avoid failure. This is not a situation you want your organization to find itself in.
The Human Factor: Goal Attainment Styles
The challenge for any leader and manager is understanding their employees’ motivations and how they need to be rewarded for goal attainment. Equally challenging is for leaders and managers to understand their own motivations and goals and how their behaviors influence or impact others.
So, first, let’s consider orientation.
- Task-involved: Interest in the process. Locke describes this orientation as, “They don’t perceive failure as a terrible thing because they know that a lack of success in one respect does not determine who they are.” They own up to their shortcomings, accepting the consequences.
- Ego-involved: “They achieve goals according to what’s in it for them, as they are extrinsically motivated,” explains Locke. They tend to blame others for their own failure; become easily discouraged without positive feedback; and believe their success is due only to their own efforts.
- Avoidance-involved: This occurs when an individual or team acts to avoid an outcome. This means that they will focus on avoiding making mistakes or failing to avoid looking incompetent or unsuccessful. If not managed, this can become a distraction by taking a short-term approach to achieve the goal, or worse, they may seek to quit the project or leave an organization as a result of low self-confidence, which feeds how they see the organization, their possible contributions, and the organization’s perceived value of their role.
Layered onto these orientation factors are the two main motivating factors: intrinsic and extrinsic.
- Intrinsic motivation: Is prompted by an internal drive or perception, such as helping others, making oneself subordinate to the group, and achieving a goal for the greater good. Intrinsic is viewed as goals that are focused on self-realization such as growth, health and autonomy. For organizations, individuals motivated by intrinsic factors lead to the greatest success as the greater good equates to the organization’s system, shared purpose and market orientation. Therefore, goals motivated by intrinsic factors keep the impact and outcome in focus.
- Extrinsic motivation: Is prompted by external sources or forces, such as achieving the goal will result in being richly rewarded. Extrinsic goals are driven by desires for wealth, image and fame. As previously discussed, motivations based on extrinsic factors can cause a significant negative impact on an organization, resulting in an imbalance in offerings, operations or customer interaction. It may also diminish an organization’s aspiration for the greater good and related expected outcomes.
At the heart of any journey towards goal attainment is the human ego. Our self-definitions change based on the situation or environment and are influenced by our subconscious and conscious self-concept and self-perception. Perception is everything to how we define reality, as we shared weeks ago.
Author Martin Maehr explains, “Motivation is the underlying momentum that carries people from one experience to another; it can reinforce or diminish peoples’ perception of self-worth based on the success and/or failure to achieve various goals.” It is important for the individual to be aware of these self-concept shifts in order to work with others or how to self-assess in the context of achieving goals.
There are many individuals that are professionally or personally afraid of failure, whether framed extrinsically in how they believe others will see them or intrinsically in how they define and see themselves. So, defining and redefining is what motivates people to play a major role in establishing the goals they set for themselves, the emotions they experience, and the meanings they attach to situations, according to Professor Peter Teunissen. The ongoing reassessment of risk and reward is a powerful motivator, as most people believe that goal attainment will also deliver personal rewards.
Goal Setting and Attainment
Happiness and well-being have been correlated to having goals (not necessarily achieving them but rather having them and working toward them). By setting goals, an individual has the motivation, focus and purpose — as do organizations. Conversely, having no goals may result in a sense of hopelessness. Without goals, oneself or an organization can’t be managed as there isn’t much at all to measure progress to the desired goal. Improvement is in itself a goal and requires systematic management. Setting clear goals requires systems in place to facilitate the outcome.
- Clarity in Defining the Goal
Precision and carefully selected terminology and language will clarify the goal so that anyone can understand it. Terminology and language can also aid in determining if it is a worthy individual or organizational goal.
- Define the Intended Outcome
Don’t mistake output for the outcome. The longer-term effect of your goal is the defined intended outcome. Clarify what you ultimately want to achieve and how it will benefit all stakeholders. Remember, outputs reflect expenditure of effort and therefore energy, but may not actually contribute to the outcome of a set goal. Again, does the goal have a worthy outcome?
- Define the Process
A working plan for achieving the goal should be flexible enough for any necessary pivots and adjustments along the way. Very little in life or work goes exactly as planned. Flexibility provides the ability to adapt to changing factors and variables and provides near-constant reassessment if the goal and its outcome remain worthy.
- Get Commitment
Make sure the goal is well understood and agreed to by the key stakeholders, groups, teams, friends, family, and so on. Enable honest discussion and field questions to ensure others are on board and committed.
- Declare the Human Factor
What cultural attitudes, group/team/organizational dynamics and behaviors need to be tapped into or addressed to align to the goal? What individuals will best comprise the core team of those responsible to achieve the goal? What rewards do they expect; what do they deserve?
- Set the Timeline
At some point, the goal needs to be attained. Be realistic but disciplined.
- Feedback Loops
Critical thinking is the tool to make sure the journey to goal achievement is on track and aligned with stakeholders even if the stakeholder is oneself. Be objective. Analyze what is going well, or not, and make necessary adjustments to manage expectations and adherence to the plan.
Attitude Can Be Everything
Top achievers are a special breed. They have high expectations of themselves, are self-confident, and are laser-focused. In many cases, they are living their goals long before they are achieved, according to Terence Jackson, Chief Operating Officer at JCG Consulting Group. They also self-report on progress, are agile and rigorously disciplined. They course correct, adapting their level of effort and energy to the difficulty of the goal.
A focus on a few goals, not a portfolio of goals, helps refine the attainment process. A focused set of goals causes fewer distractions and the possibility of fatigue and disappointment from managing too large a docket. Belief in one’s capacity, capability and potential which feeds an individual’s appropriate attitude is critical. Jackson states, “many say they want to achieve certain things but do not really believe in their ability to achieve their goals or totally value their goals. As a result, they unconsciously minimize their ability to achieve their stated intentions. To reach your goals you have to be sure that they reflect your true beliefs, values and commitments.”
Goal Expectations and Management
It is human nature to focus on the present rather than a distant future. This translates into more enthusiasm for short-term goals versus longer-term outcome/impact goals. By nature, we are also programmed to expend as little energy as possible in order to complete a task. Therefore, hard goals are easier to avoid, and clear/easier goals are more successful to achieve. With ingrained shortsightedness, individuals and organizations more easily grasp the near-term path and see what they should/could do. Because our attention spans are short, we don’t easily see the distant future, and we feel more affinity for short-term goals. “Locke found that over 90% of the time, goals that were specific and challenging, but not overly challenging, led to higher performance when compared to easy goals or goals that were too generic such as a goal to do your best,” as reported by Riopel. Over-focus on short-term goals, to the detriment of long-term more transformative goals, increases risk, rigidity and the inability to adapt to market forces or even personal circumstances.
Resistance and goal avoidance are common. If you are procrastinating, hesitating or reconsidering the goal, why? Fear of failure is a big motivator to avoid the goal altogether. This is where self-awareness and team-member awareness come in. Use critical thinking to continuously evaluate the process and reinvigorate a team. Identify the sticking points and honestly and transparently work through the issues. Keeping your eye on the prize requires empathy, agility and perseverance. And remember, remaining objective and flexible to adapt and adjust recognizes that factors and variables affecting a situation or environment do change. Additionally, failure shouldn’t be viewed in a negative light. Most, if not all failure, leads to learning and unlocks the ability to adjust. Perhaps the goal wasn’t worthy. Perhaps the goal was not in line with the environment or situation. It’s okay. Reset the goal, define or revise the outcome, learn and continue forward.
Keeping a monitor on your goals has measurable outcomes. Riopel reports on a Harvard MBA study that assessed how written and planned-for goals affected outcomes later in life. “In the study, the students were asked, have you set clear, written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them? Of those who were asked, only 3% of the graduates had written goals and plans. 13% of the students had goals, but those goals were not in writing and 84% of students polled had no specific goals at all. Ten years later the students were interviewed, and the findings were astonishing. The 13% of those who had goals, but not written them down, and the 3% that had actually written them down, were earning twice as much when compared to the 84% who had no goals at all.”
Dr. Gail Matthews, a clinical psychologist from Dominican University of California, conducted research that revealed “those who write down their goals and/or share their goals with a friend or colleague, as well as send weekly updates, were on average 33% more successful when it comes to accomplishing their stated goals compared to those who merely formulate goals,” as reported by Riopel. She adds that a study done by Statistic Brain, which analyzes New Year’s goals reveals that only 8% of people achieve their New Year’s goals with 92% of these ending in failure. The study also reports that:
- 45% of Americans usually make goals
- 17 % of Americans make goals infrequently
- 38% of Americans never make goals
Marketing and Communications
Consumer behavior can be shaped by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Marketing and sales can achieve their goals by appealing to these motivations correlated to the specific product or service. Persuasion is a powerful tool when combined with offering choice. Consider the power of primitive automaticity that we wrote about previously or life stage marketing practices that correlate to the goals individuals set for themselves or feel obligated to complete based on their life stage.
Let’s take Patagonia as an example of a brand that appeals to its loyal customers’ intrinsic motivations. Purchasing Patagonia apparel equates to saving the planet through investment in a company that is passionately sustainability-based. Patagonia is a shared-purpose community brand that taps into an intrinsic motivation to be one’s better self and maximize personal performance at the same time.
Rolex, on the other hand, uses marketing positioning to appeal to an extrinsic motivation to own a prestige timepiece that makes a personal statement about wealth and success. Rolex is also valued for its precision engineering, reliability, innovation and high resale value. These factors have a high appeal to consumers who seek external validation for their purchases.
One brand can appeal to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, although it can become confusing to the core consumer to receive off-point messaging. In both cases, marketing can persuade consumers to buy the product or service by appealing to the factors motivating purchase. Nike has been wildly successful in creating a brand persona that combines personal success and performance with the halo effect from famous, well-respected athletes that are role models for all ages. Intrinsic benefits are supported by extrinsic “heroes.”
Of course, the elephant in the room is the use and overuse of social media, which is changing behavior and even self-worth. Social media platforms are extreme marketing communications that are radically changing users’ behavior. TikTok is fueling a generation with a shorter and shorter attention span. Referred to as a dopamine machine, TikTok appeals to extrinsic motivations of being popular, on-trend and liked. It has also been reported that the app creates facial tics and other repetitive physical movements in adolescents. The Wall Street Journal reported that “Brain scans of Chinese college students showed that areas involved in addiction were highly activated in those who watched personalized videos. It also found some people have trouble controlling when to stop watching.” The goals of being liked and not left out have led to psychological, emotional and behavioral conditions that are not yet understood and will surely become more dangerous in the future.
What happens to you when a goal is blocked? Satisfaction from goal attainment is prevented and frustration, anger, blame and resignation may result. Resignation can lead to the second wave of new impediments including helplessness, anger and self-preoccupation, according to authors Eric Van Steenburg, Nancy Spears and Robert Fabrize in the Journal of Consumer Behavior.
Or do individuals become more resourceful and take an adaptive approach to achieve the goal?
Individuals with intrinsic motivation are more likely to get creative when encountering a roadblock. The extrinsic personality type with a sense of entitlement typically blames others. And that blame is often placed on a brand or organization that seems to be the source of the block. The Journal of Consumer Behavior report states that “consumers who perceive a situation to be unfair or out of their control—because of the barriers to goal attainment are more likely to experience frustration. Conversely, consumers who achieve their expected level of payoff, service or satisfaction will not experience frustration in the situation.”
When a goal is blocked, the positive solution is generally to create a new strategy to overcome the block, a way to work around the problem and/or use flexibility to adjust the expectation, goal and outcome. A negative approach is to become aggressive, regress to inappropriate behavior, repeating the same thing over and over with the same outcome, resignation or complete avoidance.
In a workplace setting when a goal is blocked, it takes patience and discipline to uncover the root cause and get the individual, team or entire organization back on track. If it is the organization itself that is the block, it is the responsibility of the individuals or teams of individuals to have a frank, open conversation about the issues with management. Remember, leading with courage encourages every individual, regardless of role or level in an organization, to be open to critical conversations and frank criticism. It is only by creating an environment to constructively communicate that clears blocks. In today’s highly charged culture, managing a goal block quickly will prevent repercussions downline from employees and customers alike.
The key to managing goal attainment is to introduce a goal and what changes may occur as a result of the process of achieving it. When any new program or innovation is introduced, it is critical to communicate the change in a non-threatening way. The human default is to take a fight or flight stance when confronting change or a new goal. A sense of security can be established by understanding what will be lost and in turn what will be gained. Everything in a workforce culture today is complex, and even day-to-day personal lives seem stressful and anxiety-filled, therefore the identification of goals and the process to attain them is influenced by our human defaults and self-perceptions, intrinsic and extrinsic conceptions, and motivating variables and factors. Humans are contradictory and complex. It takes understanding what comprises goals, what outcomes are achieved and how we manage a fear of failure or achievement of success.
At 2040 we have extensive experience in helping clients unleash their goals with an effective process designed for their organizational culture. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for setting up an environment for effective goal attainment. We assess each organization and work with management as well as the workforce to provide clarity about goals, their worthiness and the journey to attainment. Reach out to us; we can help you exceed expectations and achieve the right goals at the right pace.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.