Why motivating your team via goals, milestones and small wins is so important

It’s nearly the end of January. How quickly has that gone?! And how many of you have already let your New Year resolutions fall by the wayside? One of the main reasons we fail to achieve what we set out to is because we often set unrealistic, unachievable goals which we don’t check-in on at regular points.

I sometimes come across this in the workplace too. One of the things we examine on my High Performing Team workshops are the objectives and measures of success at an individual and team level. All too often, the managers I work with struggle to clearly define goals and within this, identify what success looks like at points along the year. This is particularly pertinent when you consider a recent study involving 117,000 managers across 32 different countries. Alan Howard and Max Choi found that leadership skills and management skills directly influence a country’s productivity, even when other relevant measures had also been taken into account.

The importance of being as specific as possible

“The power of specific, ambitious goals to improve the performance of individuals and teams is one of the best documented findings in organizational psychology, and has been replicated in more than 500 studies over the past 50 years” – Donald Sull and Charles Sull

One of the best known of these studies is Edwin Locke’s and Gary Latham’s work on Goal Setting Theory, all about “purposefully directed action”. This theory highlights four ways that specific goals connect to performance outcomes:

  1. They direct our attention to what’s important
  2. They stimulate our effort to focus on what’s important
  3. They challenge us to use our knowledge and skills so that we’re more likely to succeed
  4. The more challenging the goal, the more likely it is we’ll draw on our range of skills

A poorly worded objective or goal, therefore, might be “Develop a customer service course about handling difficult people”. A better-worded, specific goal might be, “Develop a half-day course about handling difficult people with first session delivered to 20 call-centre supervisors by 31 March, with evaluation of impact taking place one month later and subsequent report written by 15 May.”

The importance of goal difficulty and range

“Decades of research involving over 40,000 participants has shown that people who set difficult and specific goals outperform people who set vague and non-challenging goals” – Brendon Burchard

Researchers from INSEAD found that people believe it’s easier to achieve a small, incremental goal than it is to maintain the status quo. Across six studies, the researchers consistently found that the brain assesses goal difficulty using a two-step process:

  1. We estimate the size of the gap to be bridged by the goal. If the gap is zero, the brain then moves to step two…
  2. We assess the context within which the goal needs to be achieved.

A key suggestion from this research is that when setting goals, managers should be aware that status quo goals are less attractive than ones involving a slight increment. In other words, you’re more likely to get better performance by increasing expectations on a previous target than keeping it the same. You do your team members no favours by thinking you’re letting them off by keeping the same targets as last year.

And with this in mind, if a goal is geared around a target such as “Get 10,000 followers on our corporate Twitter account” then you are already setting a person up for potential failure. As Steve J Martin, Noah J Goldstein and Robert B Cialdini suggest in their book The small B!g: Small changes that spark big influence, people are much more likely to achieve target-driven goals if the target is set with a high-low range that averages the same, rather than setting a single, specific goal.

Therefore, that Twitter target of 10,000 followers might now state, “Grow our corporate Twitter account to between 5,000 and 15,000 followers by 31 December 2019”. (Although as an aside, and with my old head of communications hat on, you might be better off setting goals around engagement, likes and shares).

The importance of milestones and small wins

“Great big goals set direction and energize people, but if goals are all you’ve got you are doomed. The path to success is paved with small wins” – BOB SUTON

Agreeing with your staff what success looks like at various points in the year is crucial for maintaining focus, momentum and energy levels. Once success has been defined for various objectives, you can then put this into a milestone plan. This is something I used to do with my team managers and we’d review this every quarter at our away days – celebrating successes and understanding where and why we may have fallen short. The latter was important for tweaking milestones in the subsequent quarters.

This approach is backed up by research published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin. Researchers reviewed 138 studies involving nearly 20,000 people which looked at the effectiveness of interventions designed to prompt people to monitor their goal progress. They found that the more people monitored their progress, the greater the likelihood they would succeed in achieving their goal.

Be careful, however. To make monitoring and milestones effective, you need to ensure you’re not managing too much (micromanagement) or too little (laissez faire). This article by Victor Lipman offers some helpful advice around this.

The importance of sharing and communicating

In a popular article from MIT Sloan Management School, the authors suggest that rather than SMART goals, managers develop FAST goals where:

F = Frequently discussed

A = Ambitous

S =  Specific metrics and milestones

T = Transparent for everyone to see

It’s the ‘T’ that I want to pick up on as one of the common issues I find in teams that are under-performing is where individuals, on the same team, have somewhat contradictory objectives. When these aren’t shared, with everyone knowing what each other’s goals are, conflict and tension can occur. Putting everyone’s objectives in a shared place is one way of making things transparent. Another is talking about individual goals in team meetings, as well as in one-to-one meetings.

Another reason sharing and communicating individual goals across the team is so important is that it enables you to plan for things in advance. Researchers from Penn State University found that when barriers got in the way of people taking action against a goal (action crisis), they then started to devalue the goal which made it more likely they wouldn’t achieve that goal. In other words, it impacted people’s commitment to achieving their objective. However, the researchers found that if the person (or their network of friends and colleagues) were to know ahead of time that an action crisis may be imminent, he or she might be more likely to stick to the goal.

This means that as part of the goal-setting process, thinking about potential barriers to achieving goals in advance is crucial; as is coming up with ways of overcoming these barriers. These can also be discussed at team meetings which helps with the transparency and sharing.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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