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Motivating your team with Goldilocks goal-setting

“How do I motivate my team?” That is one of the questions which we hear most frequently. There is more than one answer to the question, of course — but one of the ways to motivate a team is by setting the right goals.

Let’s start with a couple of examples of how not to do it:

  • Suppose you are in a team meeting at the start of a project. The team lead stands up and outlines the goal for the next two months, and the good news is that it’s achievable. Very achievable. So achievable, in fact, that your eyes start to glaze over. There really is no danger of the team not making the goal, because it’s so well within the team’s capabilities that you won’t be stretched at all. After the meeting there’s an informal debrief; some of the comments are:
    • “That’d be a nice project for a group from the grad programme. Do you think they mixed us up?”
    • “I know I sometimes say I want an easy life; I didn’t say I wanted to be in a coma.”

Now let’s look at the other end of the spectrum:

  • Again, you are in a kickoff meeting. The team lead outlines a project that you have no chance of achieving. None. It’s too big, it’s too complex, it’s going to be opposed by others in the organisation .. the list goes on. At lunch that day, some of the comments are:
    • “Are we being set up to fail? Why?”
    • “Is someone up there doing this to make some kind of perverse point?”

The key is to set a goal that is difficult, but not impossible.

So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance.

(Locke & Latham, 2006)

So the goal should be achievable, but not too easy. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right. If the person (or group) does not have the ability to attain the goal, the effect is demotivating, but as long as the goal is achievable, the more difficult, the better. The goal should show that the abilities of the team are respected. It should require some ingenuity, some learning of new skills or ways of working — it should stretch and expand the abilities of the team as well.

It’s worth noting that to set goals at the right degree of difficulty requires that the person setting the goals has a good understanding of the team’s capabilities. If they are under- or over-estimated, there is the risk of setting the goal too low or too high.

The goals may not be set by you or the team, but:

  1. Use whatever ‘wiggle room’ and negotiating ability you have to adjust the goals in the right direction. If the goal is not possible, the the team needs to to be able to demonstrate this, so that the goal can be adjusted.
  2. ‘Manage up’ by educating your senior manager about your team’s abilities and how the difficulty of their goals is impacting their motivation. Watch for the phrase “tight but achievable” – sometimes it is an implicit demand to agree to something that you know isn’t possible. This is likely to have a negative effect on team morale.

Managing teams well is very much about creating the right conditions for people to thrive. A large part of this is good work design, and skilful goal-setting is a part of that.

If you are starting off a project, you might also want to look at how teams’ approaches to their work tends to be set very early on in the process, and also at how to use the natural rhythm of project deadlines and the ‘mid-life crisis’ of teams to enhance team learning. Using short timeframes for project subgoals can provide a good structure for team learning, and well-balanced goals slot into this structure to provide intrinsic motivation.


Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265–268.