Motivate for Success: the Science of Goal Setting

by Scott Crabtree

Do you have goals? Can science help you reach them? Is it possible for you to be “primed” to achieve a goal without your conscious awareness?

Dr. Gary Latham has answers. As Professor of Organizational Effectiveness at the University of Toronto, he has researched goal setting for decades. He has written several books on the topic, and he applies his research in the real world by consulting with various organizations. I recently attended an International Positive Psychology Association presentation by Dr. Latham titled: “Motivate for Success with New Insights From the Science of Goal Setting.

As always, it’s my goal to spread the science of thriving at work and help people apply that science. So what did Dr. Latham share about setting goals, and how can you use those insights at work?

Create educational, specific, stretch goals

First, based on 1,000+ experiments, here are a few of the most important findings about goals:

1. Specific, high goals lead to higher performance than easier goals, or vaguely worded goals. Your goals can’t be attitudinal. Statements such as “I’m going to do my best” and “I’m going to be a better contributor” are too vague to be helpful.

2. The higher the goal, the higher the performance—as long as you have the ability, resources, and commitment to reach the goal, and get feedback along the way. You’ll need persistence and support, but “stretch goals” motivate higher performance if they’re attainable and not a fantasy.

3. Praise, feedback, competition, and bonuses only increase performance if they lead to the setting of a specific, high goal.

4. Emphasizing learning nurtures a growth mindset, which makes you more resilient to setbacks in achieving your goals.

Some—but not all—of this research is captured in the commonly used SMART goal framework. To incorporate even more of the science of goal setting, Happy Brain Science developed the SMARTEST goal-setting framework. Click here to read more about SMARTEST goals and how to apply them.

What are subconscious goals and do they work?

Some of the most interesting findings Dr. Latham shared were about subconscious, “primed” goals. Primes are external cues—such as words or images—that create a memory in your mind, even though you’re not aware of it. They might influence you to feel or act a certain way without consciously knowing what’s motivating your behavior.

For example, a classic study involves a group of call center employees whose job was to raise money for a university. All employees received the same instructions and script for the calls. However, half of the employees were given a document that included a picture of a woman winning a race printed under the instructions. The other half were given plain instructions with no picture.

In a 3-hour shift, the employees whose instructions included the picture (the prime) raised $584. Those without the picture raised $287.

When the employees were asked what effect the picture had, most said they didn’t even notice the image. But clearly, their subconscious brains did take it in, and it had an effect on their performance. This research has been successfully replicated three different times. It’s solid science.

Multiple studies support subconscious priming

In another study, cashiers placed happy face stickers on all sales receipts in a clothing store for 3 months. Shoppers answered an online customer satisfaction survey. Overall scores and the number of “wow” compliments were significantly improved for customers who saw a happy face. And yet, not a single person reported consciously seeing the face. Again, this study has been duplicated multiple times. It’s not a fluke.

In another study, a CEO sent an email to all employees of a retail store every Monday. In one version of the email, researchers added “achievement words,” such as prevail, accomplish, strive, thrive, and win. Half of the employees received that version of the e-mail. The others received a version with more neutral words. You guessed it: employees who received the emails with achievement words were faster and more effective at resolving customer complaints.

In unpublished research, Dr. Latham’s group found that teams that were primed with a photograph of a team working together significantly outperformed the control group that didn’t see the photo.

Clearly, primes can affect our behavior—including reaching our goals—even if we aren’t aware of the prime.

Apply the Science of Goal Setting

How can you apply this research? For starters, set very specific goals that are difficult, yet attainable. Extreme stress makes you less likely to achieve your goals, so don’t take goals you have almost no chance of achieving. Goals should feel like a bit of a stretch, but not a pipe dream.

As you work toward your goals, self efficacy—the belief that you are capable—is arguably more important than ability. You want to build your own sense of self-efficacy, as well as the self-efficacy of employees. Believing you can accomplish something is part of getting it done.

Also, don’t punish yourself or your employees for not achieving goals. It just adds stress that results in being less likely to achieve the next goal. Again, try the SMARTEST framework to help you put the research into action.

Finally, to boost accomplishment, consider using words or images to prime others for achievement. (Pro tip: it won’t work on yourself. According to Dr. Latham, the research hasn’t identified the ability to prime ourselves for accomplishment.)

It’s my goal to help you apply science to thrive at work. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences: how has goal-setting worked for you or your colleagues? And what questions do you have? Let us know in the comments!