Are You Killing Your Motivation?

If a single motivation technique is all you need to become successful, then you must have a very easy job. Of course, most likely your job isn’t that simple and that single technique isn’t enough. So when you hear about big hairy audacious goals, Everest goals or just plain stretch goals, let me reassure you that your job is going to require a lot more than a single motivation technique.

Goals are indeed the core of motivation. If you don’t have a goal, then your actions are essentially random. Goals give purpose and direction. If used in moderation, they point you towards the finish line and propel you on the way. And as in medicine, the dosage makes the poison, so too much goal setting can kill you, at least metaphorically.

If you are like most of us, you have heard about S.M.A.R.T. goals way too many times. It wasn’t a bad way of organizing goals based on what we knew at the time – up to 1981 when George Doran summarized the work of Locke and Drucker in an issue of Management Review. I will skip over the S.M.A.R.T. acronym, which was again great for the time before home computers, and give us something a little more today.

Here’s how goals work. Ask yourself – when do you have the most motivation? If it is just before the deadline, welcome to the human race. Even more than that, this reservoir of motivation seems to be tapped into just before something is due, and is a characteristic shared by almost everything alive, from pigeons to chimpanzees. So we know we have motivation when under the gun or in the eleventh hour. Goal setting techniques mostly reverse-engineer that moment and create artificial conditions that mimic the deadline. Goals work best when they are something we have to do, otherwise you don’t get the benefit of the short-term pressure..

Problems happen when your goal setting hammer makes everything become a nail. Your job is complex, meaning there are a whole lot of things you need to do and a bunch of unexpected tasks on top of that. When you overemphasize your goals, you’ve directed your attention to just those goals, often to the exclusion of everything else.  If your company is communicating an all important goal, maybe it is also communicating that it is alright to ignore everything else and that you should take horrendous risks to accomplish it.

In the Academy of Management Perspectives paper, “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer, Lisa D. Ordóñez from the Eller College of Management, Adam D. Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Max H. Bazerman from the Harvard Business School, review the problem and provide a selection of goal setting induced disasters. These include GM’s stretch goal of capturing 29 per cent of market, which they pursued even after cutting margins to the point they were losing money on a per-unit basis. Or the late Roberto Goizueta, former CEO of Coca Cola made a commitment to the board and shareholders to increase earnings by 18 per cent and volume by 7 per cent annually. Eventually, he had to resort to balance sheet maneuvers to hit these targets.

So, when our goal is to maximize sales, salespeople sell for the short term and damage long-term client relationships. When our goal is to maximize the amount of work completed, quality is sacrificed for quantity. And in your complex jobs, where it is almost impossible to specify everything in terms of goals, you can probably think of a few examples right top of your head almost immediately.

While goals are handy to create motivation specific tasks, it is not a panacea. It does not replace a broad understanding and truly caring for the organization.

So I recommend that you make that your goal, if anything,  care for your organization! How do I get people to really care about this place and to want it to do well? If you can accomplish that big hairy audacious goal, you might not ever need to set another one.

(Repost from

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