People generally orient their behavior to their own needs. In addition to the basic needs that everyone must satisfy, many people also have personal wishes regarding their future. In practice, however, it can be observed that many lack the motivation to work continuously on achieving their own goals, so that their own wishes are often not realized. New Year’s resolutions are a good example of this. However, when needs and desires are translated into appropriate goals, it can boost individual motivation and help people achieve long-term success. This post is intended to help understand how and why appropriate goal setting can have a positive impact on the motivation process and also provide food for thought on how to formulate goals yourself so that there is a high probability that they will be achieved.
All content and statements within the blog posts are researched to the best of our knowledge and belief and, if possible, presented in an unbiased manner. If sources are used, they are indicated. Nevertheless, we explicitly point out that the content should not be understood as facts, but only as a suggestion and thought-provoking ideas for the own research of the readers. We assume no liability for the accuracy and/or completeness of the content presented.
In the previous post, we already explicitly considered motivation and described that it focuses on goal-directed actions. In psychological understanding, motivation always presupposes a goal toward which the efforts of a person or group of persons are directed. If one follows this understanding, it seems logical that goal setting has a high importance in the motivation process. Before going into how and why appropriate goals are able to motivate people, however, it should be noted that incorrectly set goals can also have a demotivating character. Much of the scientific understanding of goal setting is based on work by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, who contributed significantly to the establishment of goal setting theory.¹ Locke (1996) describes the motivational properties of conscious goal setting. At this point, there are three aspects in particular that are relevant to the context of this post. First, he points out that people view the achievement of more difficult goals as greater success. When ambitious goals are specifically formulated, the individual effort of the person acting is highest. In addition, he points to the importance of feedback, which makes it clear that the acting person is getting closer to the goal. When people receive feedback regarding their own actions or the actions of others, they often spontaneously set goals and challenge themselves as they seek to outperform their previous performance or the performance of others.² The factors considered in this section can also be used to extend the overview of action phases from the previous post. In the expanded model, needs and wants are first transformed into explicit goals, which in turn lead to goal-directed actions. The resulting performances and outcomes are critically examined and evaluated in the context of feedback. The feedback can then be used to formulate new goals or to adjust existing goals as needed.
In order for goals to be able to positively influence the motivation process in the context of practical application, they should fulfill certain requirements. One widely used approach are the so-called SMART-goals:
Taking these five attributes into account when setting goals increases the probability that the goals will actually be achieved. First of all, goals should always be formulated specifically, as this makes it possible to adapt behavior patterns to them and to draw up explicit plans of action. In addition, it is important that a goal should always be measurable, as this is the only way to assess whether it has actually been achieved. In addition, progress can be checked in this way, which makes it easier to adjust the goal if this is necessary. In the context of motivation, it has already been discussed that an action only comes about if the person acting is also able to achieve the required performance. Goals must therefore always be achievable. In addition, the performance must also lead to the desired outcome. Only if the outcome or the achievement of the goal has an individual value for the person acting and goes hand in hand with his or her own values can goals also motivate action. Finally, an appropriate time frame should always be set. A time-bound endpoint also allows prioritization of the various goals, and the imminent end of the timeframe can provide additional motivation that action can no longer be postponed if the goal represents a commitment. It is important to explicitly note at this point that such approaches should not be understood as a perfect model solution or guarantee success in any form, but they nevertheless provide a good point of reference for orientation in setting one’s own goals.
In practice, however, it can often be observed that many people do not align their goals with these attributes. Perhaps the most common mistake is that goals are formulated too generally. This makes achievement difficult in that no explicit action plans can be drawn up and progress is difficult or impossible to measure. However, observing that one is getting closer to one’s goal is essential for continuing to take up goal-oriented actions. If this is not the case, goals are quickly lost sight of. Another problem is that people often set goals that are too large without breaking them down into appropriate intermediate goals. In order to be successful in the long term, it is of course important to also have large and overarching goals, which should definitely be ambitious. However, in order for these to be achieved, it is imperative that they are broken down into smaller intermediate goals. This is to prevent the ambitious goals from being perceived as unrealistic at a later point in time and to make it possible to perceive progress in relation to the superordinate goal. This is the only way to sustain motivation and achieve the goal.
Goal setting is not only relevant for private success, but also for the success of organizations. These usually have a hierarchical structure that has a significant impact on the way goals are set. Within organizations, goals are often passed down along the hierarchy. This often results in those involved having a significantly lower level of commitment to the goals set. To increase the level of commitment, all stakeholders should have the opportunity to be involved in the goal-setting process. People only align their actions with a given goal if the achievement of the goal is important to them and they believe that the goal can be achieved through their own actions. Involving all stakeholders in the formulation of organizational goals allows everyone to express their wishes and concerns and to feel that they have formulated the goals – at least in part – themselves. This is important to consider if organizations want to be successful and achieve their targets.
Under the right circumstances, suitable goals can positively influence individual motivation by enabling goal-oriented action. When formulating goals, some attributes should be taken into account (SMART-goals) so that positive effects can actually be observed in practice. The self-imposed goals are usually based on the individual’s own wishes and needs and allow specific action plans to be drawn up to support the achievement of the goals. When organizations set goals, they should involve stakeholders to achieve a higher degree of connectedness, which in turn benefits the entire organization if the goals are worth striving for. Whether they are personal goals or organizational goals, ambitious goals form the basis for long-term success. In order to realize these and not quickly lose sight of them again, it is important to break down overarching goals into realistic interim goals and to record and communicate progress in terms of goal achievement.
¹ e.g. Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham. 1990. A theory of goal setting & task performance. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
² Locke, Edwin A. “Motivation through conscious goal setting.” Applied and Preventive Psychology. 5,2 (1996): 117-124.