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You Can’t Take the Human Out of Human Resources: Goal Setting and Motivation


April 9, 2015 | by Dr. Joseph St. Meyer, Senior Consultant, St. Meyer and Hubbard



Only you can motivate yourself, and it is done in strategic, rational terms rather than emotional ones.



Last month I promised you an article about goal setting and motivation. If you were expecting me to ignite your passion with some bold inspirational words, then you’ll be disappointed. I could spout some motivational truisms and provide quotations from famous athletes and coaches. This would be a superficial form of motivation, however, rather like feeling creative by reading a novel. The basic principle of motivation—which contradicts the abundance of motivational writing and speaking—is that it is something that you do to yourself, rather than people doing it to you. Only you can motivate yourself, and it is done in strategic, rational terms rather than emotional ones. When you accept this, you become more coachable because you formulate your own goals, strategies, and plans, which will enable you to have constructive and productive discussions with your manager/coach about your performance. Together you will demystify the outcomes of your work, clarifying what needs to change and emphasizing what should remain unchanged.


It is your motivational energy and conviction, not the pep-talking of your boss, that gets you in stride toward a desired state. Renowned psychologists of self-determination Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan have concluded that “self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change.” Self-motivation occurs naturally when you engage in an activity for the satisfaction you get from doing it. This is called intrinsic motivation. Instead of relying on extrinsic reasons to do something—such as money or awards—an intrinsically motivated person finds within himself the motivation to perform a task. The doing suffices to please him and it inspires perseverance, problem solving, and diligence. Intrinsic motivation and rational planning drive people toward desired outcomes, and a supportive network of colleagues and management incubates a sense of autonomy. “With these important ingredients,” Deci argues, “people will be likely to set their own goals, develop their own standards, monitor their own progress, and attain goals that benefit not only themselves, but also the groups and organizations to which they belong.” This is what I mean by coachability.


Taking interest in your inner world is a significant step toward improved performance at work and better overall mental health. Motivation is linked to our basic psychological needs. Deci and Ryan have identified three innate needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy is the belief that you have a legitimate role in making decisions and providing input at work. Such a role carries with it an ability to make choices, such as which goals to set and how to respond behaviorally and attitudinally to work. Autonomous people determine the meaning and purpose of their careers. They self-monitor their approach to tasks, assessing how thinking is turned into action. Stress is less onerous for them because they aren’t experiencing their work as something happening to them. They judge themselves independently of what they perceive others are thinking about them. They are sensitive to other people’s opinions, but they are not defined by them. Autonomous functioning is less defensive, less self-serving, shows less in-group bias, and promotes trustworthy behavior.


We thrive when we challenge ourselves and endeavor to overcome obstacles. When you control your career development, you search for effective strategies to achieve your need for competence. Competence is believing that you have the skills—or can acquire them—to enable you to make the right decisions at work and align your career with your needs and interests. We have an inherent need to assert our will on our surroundings, to be more than nature’s plaything. The route to competence starts with a thorough and open self-assessment of your strengths, weaknesses, values, interests, and identity. With this assessment, you can inform yourself and your manager/coach about the steps necessary to move yourself from your current developmental position toward better congruence between who you are now and who you want to be. Self-appraisal combines with aspiration to determine which goals to set and the attitude you will carry with you along the way.


A significant aspect of autonomy and competence is having the courage to look at your performance with more objectivity. Together with an internal standard that holds you responsible for your career, objective measures such as quotas, key performance indicators, and managerial feedback add depth and breadth to your thinking process, which acts as a map in your quest for ever increasing mastery in your career. As you move forward, march in the cadence of expectations, accountability, and feedback. This form of self-control organizes work experiences and helps you feel as if you’re on solid ground rather than adrift in tumultuous sea. Embrace feedback from management and clients, which will enable you to see the causes and effects of your attitudes and behaviors. Act with the desire to get better, not to show how good you are. Pursuing competence is not the same as running from incompetence; it is actively learning skills and attitudes that catalyze your development and, in doing so, improve your psychological well-being. Even negative inputs from managers and co-workers cannot overcome your belief in your autonomy and competence.


Career development isn’t isolated in the so-called real world, where fuzzy concepts such as psychological well-being aren’t related to the bottom line. For more than a century, psychologists have been studying the psychological elements of work life. From their research it is obvious that we don’t leave our psychological needs at home before making the morning commute. Far from irrelevant to organizational performance, individual psychological needs have a direct and powerful influence on productivity. An employee’s mental health can subvert his abilities and distort his perceptions, thereby negatively impacting the organization, or it can improve his performance and be a positive contagion in the office. The key to emotional health at work is taking the perspective that life is learning. Psychologist Heidi Grant-Halvorson reports that in “dozens of studies, people who pursue goals that are about learning, growing, and developing skills report they like their classes more, they like their jobs more, and, in general, they enjoy their lives more.”


Understanding how our minds process career experiences is essential to the development and enhancement of our knowledge, skills, and abilities. Our perceptions about career characteristics and how they relate to our success are primarily subjective. It is paramount, therefore, for the employee to realize when she is being overwhelmed by subjectivity, which is a state of mind that can quickly erode one’s confidence in her capabilities and even willingness to put forth the requisite effort for success. Our mental lives deserve as much if not more of our attention than specific tasks and skills do. This is because the healthy mindset—which sees work as an unfolding of talent and an ongoing process of getting better—acts like a filter through which events and behaviors are given meaning. With a learning mindset even errors contribute to development by offering opportunities to reassess and realign your goals and performance.


Relatedness is the third basic psychological need. There are at least three ways to feel related that are relevant to our discussion: to yourself, to other people, and to your career. I discussed relating to yourself above in terms of autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Relating to other people and your career share the key element of competence because, when we feel incompetent, we try to hide this burden by detaching ourselves from work and other people. Psychologists Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham have concluded that there are three “critical psychological states” related to work motivation: experienced meaningfulness of the work, experienced responsibility for the outcomes of the work, and knowledge of the results of the work activities. Relatedness fulfills our inherent sociability and makes work purposeful and meaningful. Along with autonomy and competence, relatedness connects our inner worlds to those of others. Experiencing this connection is a significant part of our self-determination and motivation.


Next month I will discuss the mechanics of goal setting, including types of goals and ongoing motivation throughout the goal striving process.



Dr. Joseph St. Meyer has earned bachelor's degrees in psychology from the University of Iowa and in history from Northern Illinois University. In 2013, Dr. St. Meyer was awarded a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University. His intellectual training focuses on the origins and developments of modern psychology, philosophy, and politics. He has taught at Stanford University and delivered research papers at universities nationally and internationally. Dr. St. Meyer is a senior consultant at St. Meyer & Hubbard. He writes about coaching and coachability, especially the relationship between thought processing and performance.


1. Edward L. Deci and Richard Flaste, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation (NY: Penguin Books, 1995), 9.


2. Deci and Flaste, Why We Do What We Do, 73.


3. Heidi Grant Halvorson, Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (New York: Plume, 2010), 136.


4. Murray R. Barrick, Michael K. Mount, and Ning Li, “The Theory of Purposeful Work Behavior: The Role of Personality, Higher-Order Goals, and Job Characteristics,” in Academy of Management Review, 1 January 2013, vol. 38 no.1, p.132-153.