Why you can’t motivate others by setting goals for them

[3-minute read]

Why you can’t motivate others by setting goals for them


When I was a teenager, my father wanted me to exercise more. So he gave me this goal to run 3 km, and to motivate me to achieve this goal, he promised me some money.

You can imagine what happened. I ran the 3 km, collected the money, and returned to being as lazy as ever. That was back around 1978.

30 years later, I decided to run a marathon. Don’t ask me why. I guess I was tired of feeling unfit, and running a marathon seemed like a good idea at the time. So for about one year, I got up at 5 AM every morning to do my training.

I ran my marathon and have been doing regular exercise ever since.


Many people still believe that you can motivate people by giving them goals. That is why goals are everywhere at work. We learn that goals should be SMART, that we should have Big, Hairy, and Audacious goals, that we should formulate Objectives and Key Results (OKR), and that we should have KPIs to track progress.

I believed this for most of my professional life. I believed that setting goals where a key to a more aligned, productive and motivated team.

The problem is that the goals we set for others don’t work as a tool for motivation. And there is no evidence that goals that others set for us make us more productive. On the contrary. Goals set from above limit performance.

Just think of what a top salesperson does when she hits her sales quota before the end of the year. Will she sell more or will she slow down and start filling the pipeline for the next year?

In the same way as the jogging goal my father set for me did not change my laziness, the goals we set for others make them more motivated to do the things that are good for them and for the business.

However, the goals we set ourselves are different. Goals we set voluntarily, like my goal to run a marathon, have strong motivational power, especially if the outcome of the goal is meaningful.

In my case, the outcome of my running the marathon was that I felt good about myself. And that was a deeply meaningful outcome for me, and it ultimately motivated me to get up a 5 AM every morning.

Remember: What motivates people are not the goals but the meaning behind the goals.

Don’t get me wrong. I still believe in the value of goals. What I don’t believe any more is in the value of setting goals for others.

What this means in practice

First, we should stop believing that we can motivate others by setting goals for them.

Second, instead of formulating goals for others, we should focus on articulating the meaning of what we are trying to achieve together.

Third, we can help people formulate their own goals. We should challenge the people we support to formulate goals that are meaningful to them while also contributing to what we are trying to achieve together.

Do these three things, and you will have a team with more motivation, more ownership and accountability, and ultimately, higher performance.

What next?

If what I wrote above resonates with you, let’s have a 15-minute chat

If what you just read resonates with you, let’s have a chat

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