Get 25tips in your inbox

Motivation Malfunction

goal setting Jan 25, 2011

Let's say you decide you want to become a handler on your college team.  You know you need to be a better thrower to achieve this goal.  Fortunately, you've learned that goals are supposed to be “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based).  You've also learned that large goals are supposed to be broken down into smaller ones.  So you set a measurable process goal of throwing for an hour a day five days a week.   Following the advice of 10 minute toughness, you promise yourself a reward for following through on your practice plans.  How about a new pair of cleats a few weeks before sectionals? Sounds great! Your ultimate career is off to a wonderful start.

A few weeks go by and suddenly you realize that throwing is no fun!  You actually feel a little stressed out about it but you continue to do it because you know you'll feel guilty if you don't.  Throwing practice, which was once enjoyable, is now a chore.  You used to voluntarily throw for hours at a time!  Now you struggle to make room in your schedule and eagerly quit when the time is up.

If you've experienced similar feelings in the pursuit of any of your dreams, it may be because you are using outdated motivational tools! In effect, you are acting as your own industrial age manager trying convince, cajole, and reward yourself into the correct behavior.   But you are not an overworked and underpaid factory (or cubicle) worker slaving away for some nitwit of a boss!  You are a creative human being with complex desires.

SMART goals

I have no doubt that Gwen Ambler knows what she's talking about when she says SMART goal setting works for her. However, some common motivational techniques such as goal setting and rewarding desired behaviors can have paradoxical effects on motivation if implemented incorrectly.

In the field of behavioral psychology there are few things more agreed upon than the fact that goal setting improves performance in a wide variety of tasks. But in “Goals Gone Wild” Ordenez and coworkers are of the opinion that, “Proponents of goal setting have long championed the simplicity of its implementation and the efficiency of its effects. In practice, however, setting goals is a challenging process, especially in novel settings.”

Much of our current understanding of goal setting technique was born out of research done in the 1930's and 1940's in industrial settings. Many commonly cited studies were done with loggers and typists.  The field of management science became popular in an era in which managers sought techniques to increase the productivity of a workforce that was primarily engaged in menial tasks.  Though the exact origin of the SMART goal concept remains unknown, it is an idea that is related to, though not thoroughly supported by, this early research.

Consequently, SMART goals work especially well for tasks and situations that closely resemble those of an industrial age worker.  Are tasks simple, repetitive, and perhaps boring?  Setting measurable, challenging goals is the surest way to enhance productivity and maybe also add interest to an otherwise menial job.

The farther we deviate from simple tasks, however, the more careful we must be in our goal setting techniques. Studies done with air traffic controllers showed a negative correlation between job performance and challenging performance goals.  Air traffic controlling is a complex job requiring creativity.  For these types of tasks, performance goals have derogatory effects.  This is not to say that goal setting is ineffective, but goals must be chosen very carefully.  When performance goals were replaced with learning goals, job performance was again increased.

In his book 10-Minute-Toughness, Jason Selk stresses the importance of de-emphasizing performance goals (like winning a national championship) and focusing on process goals (like practicing your throws every day, or shutting down your defender one point at a time).  He believes that both goals are important, but as research by Csikszentmihalyi and others show, performance in competition is decreased by thinking about performance goals. Learning goals and process goals may be less measurable than performance goals.   But they may work better in both motivating and allowing better performance over the long term.

External vs internal motivators

Both Locke and Jason Selk advocate the use of rewards as motivators in the pursuit of your goals.   In fact, the use of rewards to motivate behavior has been studied extensively and has been found to be effective.  Unfortunately, rewards are effective motivators only in the short term.   As soon as rewards are taken away, the desired behaviors become even less likely than they were before!

Daniel Pink, author of “Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” argues that like SMART goals, systems of rewards and punishments are also a remnants of the industrial era theories of management.   In his book, Pink cites a study where children who liked to draw in their free playtime were given rewards in exchange for their drawings. In subsequent free playtime, children who had be rewarded for their drawing efforts were less likely to choose to draw than children who had not been rewarded for drawing.  This effect lasted for the full two weeks that the children were observed following the giving of the reward.  What has happened here is that intrinsic motivation, the joy the children get from the act of drawing; has been replaced by extrinsic motivation, a reward coming from outside the self.

As with SMART goals, external rewards make the most sense with menial tasks.   Jobs that a less likely to be inherently pleasing respond well to extrinsic motivators and increases in pay correlate well with increases in productivity.  Surprisingly, the opposite effect is seen in more complex tasks.  Pink cites a study by Dan Ariely involving 87 participants and nine different tasks involving motor skills, creativity, or concentration. In eight out of nine tasks, the group offered the largest reward for performance (worth several months pay!) displayed the worst execution of the task!


If common motivational tools can have disastrous consequences, what should you do to increase the motivation of yourself and your teammates?

Unfortunately, I do not have any bulletproof advice.  Rather, I encourage you to think about setting goals, motivating others, and leading your team as complex skills that require a lot of practice.  No doubt, Gwen Ambler has had a lot of experience in goal setting and she has found a way to make SMART goals work for her.  Likewise, don't be afraid to try different approaches to setting goals and motivating your teammates.   Make mistakes and learn from them.

Below are a few resources about motivation that you may find useful, interesting, and challenging.  Whose thoughts make the most sense to you in light of your experience?


Research Papers

Related Posts

Ready to take the next step?  Sign-up for my 6 week Sprint-Agility-Quickness program!

Tell me more

Get tips from me, in your inbox!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.