Goal-setting + ?: The missing ingredient that makes performance happen

By Professor Kerrie Unsworth

About the author

Professor Kerrie Unsworth is Head of the Work Behaviour Research Centre. She is interested in studying motivation, creativity, pro-environmental behaviours and well-being. Underlying each of these is an interest in understanding how we juggle the different priorities we have at work and at home; and how we can make our working lives more fulfilling and productive.

This article first appeared in the 2017 issue of Network, the alumni magazine of Leeds University Business School.

In our increasingly busy lives, keeping everything on track can be challenging. It’s not always easy to work towards our long-term projects or plans. We have been told repeatedly that goal setting is the answer, that it’s the key to unlocking productivity and success. And, yes, goal-setting can help. But it's not a miracle cure (there aren't any miracle cures when it comes to people at work; anybody that tells you differently is selling snake oil). Goal-setting is good at helping motivation but it won't always work.

Our research shows that you need another ingredient to improve performance, and that ingredient is self-concordance.

In one of my first university jobs, a colleague, Claire Mason, and I used to have lunch once a week. We were both junior academics, new to the punishing rejections of our research and to the harsh realities of teaching students who were not always keen to learn. We were struggling. We were demotivated, demoralised and unhappy. But, we thought, we are organisational psychologists, we should be able to solve our problems.

We searched through the literature to look for strategies. We would meet each week and discuss what we’d found. We found a lot that we could use if we could change the way the job was structured (but we had no control over the structure and design of the job). We found a lot that we could use if we could change the leadership (but we had no control over our leader). What we didn’t find was a lot that we could do that we had control over.

So we decided that we needed to do the research ourselves. And in finding strategies that worked for us, we were able to find strategies that worked for other regular employees too.

Using self-concordance

Self-concordance is the feeling you get when the task you are working on helps you to achieve your other projects, interests and dreams. Unlike other theories in psychology, with self-concordance it doesn’t matter whether or not it is fun or if you choose to do it. Instead, as long as the task relates to your longer-term goals, it will motivate you to perform.

A task can be boring and tedious, but still be self-concordant; you can feel forced to do it, but the task could still be self-concordant. For example, you might have a task that helps to make you wealthy – if you have a dream of being wealthy then that task will be high in self-concordance, if you don't dream of being wealthy then it will be low in self-concordance.

But what’s so special about self-concordance?

Well, if something helps you to achieve your goals and dreams then you are going to be more motivated to persist and to work hard on it. It becomes meaningful. If the task is fun, then you’ll be motivated until it loses its novelty value. But if it's self-concordant, then you’ll stay motivated as long as it helps you to achieve those larger purposes in your life.

Dr Elisa Adriasola of Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Chile, likes to compare it to changing her baby’s nappies – it’s not something she would choose to do, and it’s certainly not fun, but because it connects so closely to her identity as a mother, it is self-concordant.

Goal setting and motivation

The interesting part comes into play when you combine self-concordance with goal-setting. Goal-setting creates a drive because there is a gap between where you currently are and where your goal says you should be. If you don’t really care about where your goal says you should be, then that gap becomes fuzzy and the motivation becomes wishy-washy. If, on the other hand, that goal is self-concordant then the goal is strengthened and made salient. It stands out in big, brightly-lit letters against the stark sky of all of your other goals. Now the gap between where you are and where you want to be is clear and the motivation is compelling.

Claire and I wanted to see if our ideas worked in practice. We asked the undergraduate students questions to determine how much they used both self-concordance and goal-setting strategies. Next we looked at the grades they received for their assignment at the end of semester. We controlled for their grade in a previous assignment to make sure that we weren’t just dealing with intelligence or conscientiousness and we controlled for age just in case there was an effect for maturity. And then we ran the statistics.

Lo and behold, we found what we expected – when a student used only goal-setting strategies, they did just as well in their assignment as a student who didn’t use goal-setting; but when they used self-concordance as well, goal-setting really helped to improve their grade.

This convinced us that we were on to something and we decided to do a proper test that would help to confirm causality. We developed an online six-week training package that taught participants strategies to increase self-concordance as well as goal-setting strategies. The kinds of self-concordance strategies we used were based on changing thoughts (thinking about tasks that were related to bigger-picture goals) and changing the tasks themselves so that they were more self-concordant.

We had 131 people from public sector organisations and private companies volunteer to test the programme. We allocated them into two groups; one who completed the training straight away and one who completed it at the end of the research. This research design helped us to check that there wasn’t something happening outside the training programme that might be causing the effects, like the holiday season or a flu epidemic.

All of the participants completed surveys at the start of the programme and between two and six weeks after finishing the programme. We measured the degree to which people used both self-concordance and goal-setting strategies as well as their perceived level of effort and their perceived creativity.

What did we find? Exactly what we expected! Those people in the first group who learnt and used self-concordance strategies benefitted from using goal-setting by putting in more effort and being more creative. People who did not learn and/or use self-concordance strategies did not benefit when they used goal-setting. In other words, goal-setting only worked when people were also using self-concordance strategies.

Making performance happen

Now the crucial question – so what? This research shows that you need to think about how your tasks can help you to achieve your long-term goals, plans and dreams. Creating a task-list and a five-year plan won’t help you unless you know “why” you are doing something, and unless that “why” is important to you. Remember to focus on the tasks that are most closely aligned with your identities and values; and if your tasks aren’t related to your bigger-picture goals then change them so that they are.

Working towards a goal that is set by your boss, your company, your partner, or your family and that you don’t believe in will not lead you to function better. Instead, explicitly consider how it can help you to achieve what you want. That’s the missing ingredient. And that’s what will help with your performance.

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