Goals Gone Wild

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"Goals may cause systemic problems for organizations due to narrowed focus, unethical behavior, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased intrinsic motivation. Use care when applying goals in your organization." -Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink (Notes here)


If we are wired to be active, engaged, curious, and self-directed, why is our current management structure not reflecting this? Unless you work for a progressive company who is constantly exploring new research in motivation, goal setting, and work ethic (eh-hmm—Sustainable Evolution Inc.—cough-cough), you probably have to jump through some hoops to get into your “sweet spot” for maximum productivity.

       This is a list of things that have gotten in my way in the past:

  • Clocking in at a certain time each day (even when I could do it remotely online)

  • Filling out disciplinary reports for why I was late or didn’t reach a certain “team” goal

  • Monthly sales goals and quotas which are updated daily and sent around the office with encouraging lines like this: “each of us needs to work harder for the team so me can make goal X” and towards the end of the month “if we don’t make goal X, we may have to downsize based on individual performance”

  • Micromanaging managers who frown on self-directed learning (we have a book and we do it by the book because it’s in the book)

  • Bonuses for selling more of item-X

  • Competition against coworkers (Glengarry Glen Ross style)

A lot of companies (but not enough) are moving away from the carrot and stick managing styles and moving towards more sustainable motives. I will look at two types of motivation and how each approach applies to goal setting and productivity. This blog post is inspired by the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink. This is a great book and a must-read if you have time; if not, this post summarizes a few nuggets that stood out for me (more notes here).

 First, there are two kinds of motivation (definitions from http://www.businessdictionary.com):

                 Extrinsic: Drive to action that springs from outside influences instead of from one's own feelings.

                 Intrinsic: Stimulation that drives an individual to adopt or change a behavior for his or her own internal satisfaction or fulfillment. Intrinsic motivation is usually self-applied, and springs from a direct relationship between the individual and the situation. It is very important factor in the design of a learning or training course.


The Problem With Carrots and Sticks

Intrinsic motivation is more sustainable than extrinsic. Rewards for behaviors may look good in the short term, but often spiral out of control. Here’s why:

1.     It turns an activity someone may enjoy doing into “work”. It is an exchange of wealth for “work”. If the compensation for the work goes away, people generally stop doing the activity, even if it is something they didn’t mind doing before there was a reward (this is why rewarding good grades with money isn’t a good motivator, and if a child is rewarded for reading three books, chances are they won’t pick up book number four on their own, and rewarding them for reading three books won’t turn them into lifetime readers).

2.     If a reward is given to someone each time they complete a task, that person will start to expect the same compensation each time, establishing a baseline.

3.     Goals can promote bad behaviors, such as overcharging to meet sales quotas and short cuts in safety checks. “Substantial evidence demonstrates that addition to motivating constructive effort, goal setting can induce unethical behavior”. (50)

4.     Summary: Great for the short-term, but terrible for long haul.


Intrinsic Motivation: The New Rules of Motivation

It is in our best interest (and your managers) to have passion for your job. Your work should be “as natural as play or rest”. In this mental state people accept and even seek responsibility. (76)

This way you will be motivated by the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself. In short, your job should not be a “job” but a hobby you happen to be compensated for. You will be self-directed and motivated if you are working on something you have a passion for. Managers don’t want to have to motivate you. One business owner in Drive said, “If you need me to motivate you, I probably don’t want to hire you” (32). If you don’t have passion for your job, you may want to rethink your career. Identify tasks or jobs you would enjoy doing, and get started looking to those career options.

  • The Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). Let your employees work on their own terms. Besides work related meetings at designated times each week, give your employees (and yourself) the freedom to work wherever and whenever they feel most productive. Doing this, you are able to focus on the work, not getting to work on time. Also, this allows people to work when they are most productive.  (See more: Chapter 4)

  • The best people to hire are more interested in the ideas than the money. They will be easy to work with, collaborate with, and you will get outstanding results.  “Type I’s [intrinsically motivated people] don’t turn down raises or refuse to cash paychecks. But one reason fair and adequate pay is so essential is that it takes the issue of money off the table so they can focus on work itself”. (79)

  • Your manger and company should support you, not hold you back. Suggest a revision of a procedure if it is holding you back. Autonomy is important and so is “autonomy support”.

  • Rewards should be unexpected and offered only after a job is complete.

  • A sense of urgency can sometimes get in the way of a purpose or your passion. Be mindful while working on deadlines so your focus is on the idea not the date.


If you enjoyed reading this post and learning about the ideas in the book Drive, check out Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. It’s another book with business and psychology overlap. It provides an unconventional look at behavior economics, examining our blind motives behind decision-making.  What the author says about the book: "My goal, by the end of this book, is to help you fundamentally rethink what makes you and the people around you tick. I hope to lead you there by presenting a wide range of scientific experiments, findings, and anecdotes that are in many cases quite amusing. Once you see how systematic certain mistakes are--how we repeat them again and again--I think you will begin to learn how to avoid some of them".


Andrew J. Wilt  

SEI Junior Consultant

Apprenticeship Program