Three Ways to Make SMART Goals Smarter

by | Aug 2, 2015

The 1996 Summer Olympics were approaching fast. Atlanta hummed with construction. I was part of a team that designed and built the Transportation Management Center or TMC. The work engulfed the city, all of the surrounding counties, the state department of transportation, federal transportation agencies, MARTA (the transit operator) and a significant quantity of consultants as well as many independent contractors.

We needed unprecedented cooperation to achieve the goal: to complete an operational TMC by July 19th for the opening ceremony. The goals was SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. But, this goal had something going for it that many other SMART goals did not have. It was intrinsically motivating.

SMART goals are practical, logical, rational and…sometimes, lackluster. Complete the proposal by September 1, launch the app by January 1, write a blog by Monday. Well, okay this one is for real.

The statistics on the success rate for achieving goals is dismal. According to the University of Scranton, only 8% of New Year’s resolutions are realized. It’s no wonder enthusiasm is lacking if the goal has no link to your natural motivations or self-identity. Goals that are too much from the head need conscious, concerted thought to push them forward. And that means mental energy – a scarce resource. On the other hand, goals that are connected to deeper meaning are more self-motivating. How can you as a manager and leader, tap into this strong motivational force? Here are three ways you can make that connection.

Intrinsic individualized motivation. Dr. David Rock and Elliot Berkman, who are researchers in the neuroscience field have a theory of goal pursuit called AIM (Antecedent, Integration, Maintenance). The Integration element includes a method to find and link to intrinsic motivation. It has to do with asking, “why.” Here’s how it works.

Start by stating the goal. For example, complete the TMC for the Olympic opening. Then ask “why.” My answer may be: “It feels as though I’m part of something bigger; I feel pride; I feel important and successful when working on this project.” Notice that the “why” answers speak to an internal motivation that, in my case, connect to my value system. This type of goal is self-motivating because it comes from inside.

Now consider another goal: Launch a new product by September 1. Again ask “why.” The corporate response might be to make more money or be the first to corner this market. That is intellectually understandable but not very emotionally compelling. As a leader, help individuals connect this company goal at a deeper level. As a further example, keep asking “why” until you find the intrinsic motivator. Examples of intrinsic motivators include:

• Status – I feel important working on this product launch;
• Success – I feel successful to achieve this big goal;
• Charitable – I’m contributing to something that will help others;
• Creative – I love using my creativity in a new way.

Intrinsic motivators are part of an individual’s value system and can be linked to how they self-identify. Once you have that connection, the company goal is more likely to be sustainable and achievable because of increased meaning.

Approach or Avoid Alignment. Goals can be stated to be either approach oriented or avoidance oriented. For example:
• Approach: Meet the product launch date
• Avoidance: Don’t miss the product launch date
• Approach: Make my husband happy
• Avoidance: Don’t upset my husband (ok…so this one is real, too)

Research shows that individuals have a natural preference to either an approach or avoidance framing. Stating a goal so that it is congruent with the natural preference can make the goal more motivating. In my case, I am approach-oriented for big, audacious, life goals; however, for many day-to-day goals I am avoidance-oriented. Which of these approaches are your preference?

As an exercise, write down a goal in both formats and notice which one feels more motivating for you. There is no right or wrong answer. One way may simply work better for you than another. Once you know which one it is, consider addressing the goal that uses that phraseology. While it is straightforward for you, it may be difficult to discern it for others.

I tend to lean toward an educational approach. Educate staff to understand the neuroscience behind approach and avoidance goals. They will quickly understand the difference between the goal statements and they are likely to grasp the differences in motivational intensity and see the value. Once you understand this approach, use congruent approach or avoidance goal statements.

Cut through the clutter. Lastly, when goals are aligned with intrinsic motivators people tend to notice new opportunities that align with the goal. Research shows the more important a goal is to a person’s self-identity, then it follows an object that is in alignment with the goal has higher perceived value. Subsequently, when bombarded with daily, on-the-job distractions, the opportunities aligned with the intrinsically motivated goal will stand out from the crowd. And conversely, you are less likely to notice situations that are not in goal alignment. This is good news because this tendency assists with focus in an era abundant with distractions. Plus, you are more likely to recognize opportunity when it comes.

In retrospect, we achieved our goal of opening the TMC in time for the opening ceremonies. That goal created a bond between all of us that still endures. Each time I bump into one of the team at conferences, we smile at the memory and because it feels good all over again. Now, that’s a powerful motivator.


Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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