Why It's Time To Rethink Goal Setting

How To Set Big Goals and Stay Motivated at Work

May 14, 2019
As Featured In 
Journal of Applied Psychology

Want to get more out of your workday and stay motivated all week long? Thinking about your work goals differently may help you do this. Focus on three key “strivings,” says Maryland Smith’s Trevor A. Foulk.

In recent research, Foulk and two co-authors studied three motivational “strivings,” which are mid-level motivational intentions and more abstract than traditional goals. These strivings are accomplishment striving, the drive to get things done; status striving, the drive to be seen as important, and communion striving, the drive to have good relationships with others. The research offers practical advice for individuals — and for managers.

It’s a different way of thinking about the notion of goals and motivation. In recent years, conventional career advice has centered on setting SMART goals — ones that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.

Foulk’s research, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, recommends a different approach, conceptualizing motivational intention. “Typically, we think about motivation in terms of goals,” Foulk says. “In other words, in terms of whether things can be accomplished or not.” Once the goals are accomplished, he continues, they’re done, and it’s time to shift to another goal.

In an interview, he explains the value of the abstract nature of strivings.“That abstractness,” Foulk says, “means that, unlike traditional goals, they can never be fully finished. For example, a goal might be to commune with others.”

The study finds that the abstract strivings can themselves actually become motivating over time, because of their non-completable nature.

The researchers conducted a longitudinal study, involving 93 employees in various jobs and at various organizations. At regular intervals throughout each day for three weeks, the researchers asked the employees to complete surveys, assessing their strivings, their progress and their satisfaction levels.

In the morning, each participant completed a survey that measured each striving. They predicted that when participants wake up feeling a strong sense of communion striving, one thing they might do to satisfy that striving is to help others. Likewise, participants who wake up with a strong sense of accomplishment striving might set off to perform a series of tasks, getting things done. And participants who wake up with a strong sense of status striving might satisfy that striving by exerting authority over others.

In the afternoon, each participant would complete another survey measuring the behaviors associated with each striving.

Finally, in the evenings, the participants would complete an end-of-day survey that would measure their psychological need satisfaction. The next day, the cycle of surveys would kick off again.

“What we found was a self-reinforcing effect,” says Foulk. “People who woke with a strong sense of communion striving, and who were able to fulfill that striving in the day by engaging in helping behaviors, went to bed satisfied that they had met that need and would wake up the next morning with a strong sense of communion striving, essentially wanting to do it all again. The same was true for accomplishment striving and status striving.”

The research demonstrates that our sense of satisfaction actually serves as feedback in our sense of strivings. “It’s basically telling you that that’s a good striving for you to have in your work environment,” Foulk says.

The researchers model further reveals that our senses of strivings are dynamic constructs that have implications for how employees act and feel every day at work, and that daily need satisfaction can enhance next-morning strivings, generating a virtuous motivational cycle.

Read more: The virtuous cycle of daily motivation: Effects of daily strivings on work behaviors, need satisfaction, and next-day strivings is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

About the Author(s)

Trevor Foulk

Dr. Trevor Foulk is an Assistant Professor of Management & Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida, and his Bachelors of Business Administration from the University of Massachusetts.

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