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  • Writer's pictureDennis Sullivan

The 800-pound gorilla you can use to motivate others – more powerful than monetary incentives!

How can you motivate others to perform more effectively?

You may be surprised to learn that motivation is the most frequently researched topic in organizational behavior. There is indeed ONE effective way to motivate others that tops them all.

I remember when I was promoted to manager early in my career, the most challenging question I faced was this: How can I motivate others around me to perform more effectively?

Not surprisingly, it is also the most common and profound question I get from the business owners I work with each day. Some try to motivate others with incentives, kick-off events, regular meetings, performance check-ins, rewards, positive reinforcement, training workshops, self-management techniques, performance reviews, personality testing, implementing corrective performance measures and even taking time out each day for meditation.

However, you may be surprised to learn that motivation is the most frequently researched topic in organizational behavior and there is indeed ONE effective way to motivate others that tops them all.

Motivation is an ability to get excited about what could be. That vision provides direction and purpose for someone to be willing to spend the time, energy and persistence needed to perform at a higher level. It’s one thing to motivate yourself, but it’s quite another to rally a group of others around that goal and get them just as excited about it as you. Tap into the power of that vision and your organization can achieve extraordinary things!

We see just how powerful that can be every year during March Madness!

Long before the first tip-off of the basketball season, college coaches talk to their teams about what they hope to accomplish that season – win the NCAA championship, reach the final four and if you’re a Maryland team, beat Duke!

We are motivated by anticipation

So, what is the most powerful method to motivate others? Setting goals. That’s it. You can try all the other techniques but without setting goals – nothing else matters. It is so powerful that researchers concluded that goal-setting is the 800-pound gorilla among theories of motivation, according to a meta-analysis by Mitchell & Daniels (2003). As humans, we are “goal setters” and “goal seekers” so it is natural for us to be drawn towards ideas and visions of better future. We are motivated by anticipation.

The most effective method of goal-setting is to use SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant & Time-Sensitive) Goals, according to Latham, Mitchell, and Dossett (1978). SMART Goals are more powerful than offering rewards! Those who had SMART goals were evaluated by management as performing significantly higher than those who did not have SMART goals but instead received praise, public recognition, or a monetary incentive.

“…high goals lead to higher performance than no goals or general and abstract goals. If a person is committed to the goal, the higher the goal the higher the performance. The nature of the goal affects choice, effort, and persistence. Therefore, praise, feedback, participation in decision making, and monetary incentives increase performance only when they lead to the setting of and commitment to a specific, high goal,” according to Latham & Locke (2006), who published additional research on the power of goal-setting in an article in the journal, Organization Dynamics.

A practical goal-setting technique you can use

Goals are not enough. Instead specific, high-performance goals are what are needed. That’s why SMART goals are so important. For example, let’s say your goal is to increase sales this year. Using a SMART goal that would look something like this:

  • Specific – Instead of saying you simply plan to increase sales, be more specific using a dollar figure, percentage, profit margin, etc. For example, you may say instead, “ I plan to increase sales 12%.”

  • Measurable – Be sure you can measure your progress on a regular basis so you can assess how well you are meeting your goal.

  • Achievable – Give yourself a reality check. Do you really think you can reach that goal given past experience, market conditions and future expectations? Given those conditions, perhaps the goal would change to a sales increase of 8%.

  • Relevant – The goals should relevant to those things in which you have control and matter most to your organization. If not, you are less likely to be motivated to spend the time, energy and persistence needed to reach the goal.

  • Time-Sensitive – Ask yourself: When will I reach my goal? Do you plan to increase sales 8% within the next 3 months, 6 months or 12 months?

From there, and this is critical, set subgoals. These are smaller, incremental goals that will help your employees progress – and just as importantly, help you determine how well they are performing against their goals.

A study by Latham & Seijts (1999) in the Journal of Organizational Behavior concluded, “…when people set proximal or subgoals in addition to the performance goal, profits are significantly higher than with a single performance goal.”

SMART Goals and subgoals are some of the most powerful tools you have as a manager to help your employees stay on track, make corrections when needed and keep your entire team motivated to achieve more. For more on how to set goals in your organization and motivate your team, call us for a FREE 60-Minute Goal-Setting Consultation.


Latham, G.P. & Locke (2006). Enhancing the benefits and overcoming the pitfalls of goal setting. Organization Dynamics, 35: 332-340.

Latham, G.P., Mitchell, T.R., and Dossett, D.L. (1978). The importance of participative goal setting and anticipated rewards on goal difficulty and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63: 163-171.

Latham, G.P. and Seijts, G.H. (1999). The effects of proximal and distal goals on performance on a moderately complex task, Journal of Organizational Behavior. (20), 421-429.

Mitchell. T.R., Daniels, D. (2003). Motivation, in W.C. Borman, D.R. Ilgen, and R.J. Klimonski (Eds.) Handbook of Psychology, Vol. 12. Industrial Organizational Psychology (New York, Wiley, 2003). Pp. 225-254; C.C. Pinder (1998). Work Motivation in Organizational Behavior. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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