Self-Set Goals Research Paper

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Goals are anticipated positive future states or events which a person strives to achieve. The terms aim, objective, and standard are widely used synonymously. Other related concepts, however, like intention, norm, and task can be distinguished from goals because they emphasize the action itself rather than the anticipated future state.

The importance of a goal for motivated action is beyond doubt. Action theories, for instance, use goal as the key element for defining action—their object of interest. Many motivation theories also see goals as key elements and illustrate their motivational effect with a metaphor: The goal “pulls” the action.

Goals are seen as an effective means for promoting motivation and are therefore used as an instrument for leading and motivating people. Locke and Latham’s (1990) goal-setting theory is based on the assumption that the motivational effects of performance goals mainly determine a person’s performance on work-related tasks. An application of this notion can be seen in Management by Objectives (MbO), a popular leadership method that aims at transforming a company’s strategic goals into individual goals. It is expected that inasmuch as an employee accepts and adopts the negotiated goals, he or she will be better oriented and more motivated than without a goal.

Nevertheless, if we are to explain motivation, it is not sufficient to study the goal and its features alone. It is important to additionally consider the characteristics of the person, since the value and motivating power of a given goal depends heavily on the specific needs of the person. Kehr’s (2004b) compensatory model of work motivation and volition, for instance, states that a goal should match the person’s basic needs and motives in order to be motivating. To complicate the issue further, some related approaches emphasize that a goal should also fit in with the other goals for which the person strives.

By discussing the aforementioned approaches, this research-paper will highlight the motivating potential of goals but also explain why goals may sometimes also lose their motivating force. To introduce the topic and to bridge the gap between theory and practice, we will begin by presenting a case study. The case starts by introducing Peter, the protagonist, who has a goal. We would therefore expect

him to be highly motivated to pursue his goal. Alas, Peter feels thoroughly demotivated. What could be the reasons for the lack of motivating power of Peter’s goal? To develop possible answers to this question, we will scrutinize Peter’s situation more closely, and by referring to various theoretical frameworks, we will show under which conditions goals can lose their motivating potential. Our line of argument will proceed as follows: We will begin by focusing on Peter’s salient goal and investigate the characteristics of this goal. Next, we will include other preexisting goals, which will enable us to discuss the potentially complex network into which Peter’s prevalent goal may be integrated. We will then examine some specific goal relevant characteristics of the person: motive dispositions and volitional strength. As a final step of our analysis, we intend to broaden the view to include potentially relevant situational aspects. As a tentative solution to Peter’s problem, we will present two alternative sources of motivation: incentives that result from performing the activity itself and visions.

Case Study: Peter, The Sales And Marketing Manager, Feels Utterly Demotivated

Peter Dell, an energetic, outgoing business graduate, started his career as a sales and marketing manager in the pharmaceutical and life science industry 6 years ago. He successfully helped his company, a San Francisco-based start-up firm, to build a countrywide sales network. A couple of months ago, his supervisor Don called him into his office to tell him about the company’s new strategic plan to expand its sales activities into Central America. Don asked Peter whether he wished to manage this ambitious project. Peter was initially worried, but Don managed to quash these worries by offering him a promotion to the position of Senior Vice President Central America, along with a substantial pay rise. Finally, Peter and Don agreed upon an initial assignment of 12 months.

Peter took up his new role 3 weeks ago. With only a few suitcases of personal belongings and business-related materials, but without his family, he left for Costa Rica, the company’s new hub in Central America. However, shortly after arriving in his new, appealing office in Costa Rica, Peter began to loose his drive. Now, after only 3 weeks in the country, he feels utterly demotivated. Day after day, he sits in his office and has no energy whatsoever to make plans or contact people in order to build networks. Never before has he experienced anything like what now appears to be a total loss of morale and stamina.

Does Peter Have a “SMARTCH” Goal?

First, let us focus on the goal itself. The starting point is the observation that people with roughly the same abilities and knowledge may nevertheless show substantial differences in their task performance. The reasons for such differences are seen in the fact that more successful people often have a goal. Their goal can motivate them to maximize their performance by influencing three dimensions of motivated action: direction, intensity, and duration. First, goals direct behavior toward actions that are necessary to reach the goal. Second, goals determine the intensity of effort that is invested in goal achievement. Third, goals determine, especially when no time limit is imposed, the duration of effort.

A plethora of empirical studies have identified two specific features of goals which are especially relevant for high performance: goal specificity and goal difficulty. Locke and Latham’s (1990) goal-setting theory hence states that specific and difficult goals, in general, lead to high performance. This is because people tend to match the labor they invest in goal achievement with the difficulty of the goal. Thus, they compensate higher goal difficulty with greater effort. The situation is similar for goal specificity: If a goal is not specific (e.g., a “do-your-best” goal), it is much easier to prematurely get the false impression that the goal might have already been reached.

In line with the goal-setting theory, many management training programs preach that goals should ideally be “SMART.” The acronym SMART stands for the attributes of an “ideal” goal: specific (specifying the what, why, and how), measurable (availability of criteria for assessing progress and success), attainable (the goal is not out of reach), realistic (availability of required skills, resources, and time), and timely (clearly set time frame). Ideally, the aforementioned attributes should be supplemented by the attribute challenging (leading to the less catchy yet more correct acronym “SMARTCH”), as the impression of being challenged by a goal clearly also adds to the motivating potential of a goal.

Let us get back to our case. When examining Peter’s main objective, namely to enter the market of Central America and establish a valuable network of partners and customers, this goal may possibly not be SMARTCH. On the contrary, Peter’s aim to go to Central America might rather be abstract, complex, hard to measure, not timely defined, perhaps not attainable and hence not realistic, and consequentially not even challenging.

A further fundamental determinant of goal-related performance is goal commitment. High goal commitment means that the person considers the goal significant, is determined to achieve it, is emotionally involved, and does not give up in the face of difficulties. With regard to our case study, even if Peter might actually have a specific and difficult goal (e.g., to organize a show at a Costa Rican trade fair within 4 weeks in order to increase the brand awareness of the company), this alone might not be sufficient to motivate Peter. He would also need to be convinced of the necessity of the trade show and, hence, to be committed to this assignment.

Lastly, commitment to specific and difficult goals is not sufficient for high performance: Additionally, the person needs to have the required skills and abilities. Goal-setting theory allows for this by declaring ability and self-efficacy (the abilities a person subjectively believes him- or herself to have; Bandura, 1977) to be critical conditions of task performance. If Peter did not have, or did not believe to have, the required abilities to enter the Costa Rican market, he would probably not even try to reach this difficult and complex goal. In this case, first setting short-term and nonspecific goals (i.e., to begin by contacting some potential customers) might help him to build up abilities and (through an early sense of success) to also increase his trust in his abilities.

In sum, a closer analysis of Peter’s goal has shown why Peter, despite of having a goal, might feel increasingly de-motivated. All of the goal characteristics mentioned above are potential reasons for Peter’s lack of motivation and may have partly caused the current loss of energy and stamina.

Does Peter’s Goal Cause Conflicts With His Other Goals?

After having discussed the motivational mechanisms of the goal itself, we will now allow for the complexity of reality. Usually, a person has a complex system of several goals, which ideally harmonize but might also conflict with each other and cause intrapersonal goal conflicts. Such intrapersonal goal conflicts occur when striving for one valued goal interferes with attaining another desired goal, or when a decision between some incompatible alternatives is required.

With regard to intrapersonal goal conflicts, it is necessary to consider the valence of the goal at hand, which is characterized through two opposing poles—positive versus negative valence. Positive valence refers to appealing, attractive facets of the goal, initiating approach tendencies. Negative valence, by contrast, marks repelling goal aspects, causing avoidance tendencies. Taking into account the fact that both positive and negative valences might be combined within one goal, Lewin (1931) formed a conflict taxonomy that distinguishes between three types of intrapersonal conflicts. Approach-approach conflicts arise if a person has to decide between two appealing but incompatible alternatives (i.e., Peter wants to be with his family and friends, but he also wants to complete the project in Costa Rica). Approach-avoidance conflicts occur if an option has positive as well as negative aspects (i.e., Peter wants to experience a new culture but is also afraid of behaving and acting in the wrong way). Finally, avoidance-avoidance conflicts describe the choice between two disliked opportunities (i.e., Peter’s choice between two unfavorable alternatives: either to persevere in Costa Rica far away from his family and friends or to give up and admit defeat).

Of course, intrapersonal goal conflicts can be supplemented by similar types of interpersonal (social) conflicts. Indeed, in real life, goal conflicts are even more complex, since we are embedded in a social network of relationships (i.e., one’s boss, colleagues, partner, family, and friends), all of which embrace different roles and demands. Roles result from the expectations of society regarding appropriate behavior in a particular position. If individuals engage in multiple incompatible roles, contradictory role pressures lead to a role conflict. Work- and family-related role conflicts are prominent examples of this in the current literature on organizational behavior.

Irrespective of whether they are caused by interpersonal expectations or intrapersonal desires, conflicts among goals can have detrimental effects on goal attainment (due to decreased action and increased rumination about the conflicting strivings) and may lead to negative affect, depression, and psychosomatic complaints (Emmons & King, 1988). Moreover, Kehr (2003) showed that preexisting goal conflicts which persevere over time might also impair the attainment of newly set goals. This might be due to dysfunctional thought processes absorbing attention resources. However, a positive side effect may be that a person, when identifying goal conflicts, may feel the need to clarify and reprioritize his or her goals. This is a step in personality development and fosters and ultimately enhances the person’s coping resources relevant for future conflict resolution.

In order to analyze Peter’s situation from the perspective of conflicting goals and roles, it is crucial to look at all of the aspects that Peter might have taken into consideration when making his decision whether to go to Costa Rica. Don, Peter’s boss, had resolved his initial doubts and convinced him to accept the foreign assignment by offering a promotion to the position of Senior Vice President Central America. But what might have been the reasons for Peter’s initial worries? His thoughts after 3 weeks in Costa Rica might provide an answer here. Peter might be facing a strong work-family conflict. He might be missing his wife and his daughter, who are unable to visit him due to work and school obligations. This might be additionally exacerbated by increasingly tense telephone conversations with his wife, who feels abandoned and overburdened by the situation. Thus, Peter might be torn between his love and responsibility for his family and his desire to master the demands of his job. Moreover, he might possibly be experiencing a strong conflict between the initial expectation of furthering his career through this assignment and the opposite effect that has actually emerged—namely, the endangerment of his career. All of these conflicts might be occupying his attention and energy resources, making him feeling depressed and tired, and absorbing his initial motivation.

Does Peter’s Goal Cause Conflict With His Needs?

This section will investigate which further characteristics of a person moderate the motivational potential of goals. Intuitively, one would expect that achieving a personal goal leads to satisfaction and well-being. However, Brunstein, Schultheiss, and Grassmann (1998) were able to show that this is not always the case. People who pursue goals which are not in line with their latent motives are less satisfied even if they reach their goals. Continuing motive-incongruent behavior, can cause intrapersonal conflicts in terms of contradictory behavioral tendencies. This may than impair performance, well-being, and health.

But why do people pursue goals that are not in line with their underlying motive pattern? McClelland, Koestner, and Weinberger (1989) attempted to answer this question by postulating two different types of motives, implicit and explicit motives. Implicit and explicit motives are related to different characteristics of the person and are therefore empirically largely uncorrelated. Implicit motives are subconsciously aroused through certain situational cues and cause affective preferences and unconscious behavioral impulses. Commonly, implicit motives are thematically classified into the big three: affiliation (i.e., building and maintaining close social relations), achievement (i.e., meeting or exceeding personal standards of excellence), and power (i.e., seeking social influence, status, and dominance).

As implicit motives are not consciously represented, they cannot be assessed with self-report techniques. Hence, McClelland (1987) stated, “A scientist cannot believe what people say about their motives” (p. 11). The underlying notion is that many people are unaware of their implicit motives. Thus far, the only approach for accessing a person’s implicit motives is to systematically analyze the affective preferences and spontaneous behavioral impulses of that person with a projective assessment tool such as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT; Murray, 1943). The TAT uses ambiguous pictures and asks the person to write an interesting and novel story about what might have happened in the scene depicted on the picture. Here, the scene on the picture is meant to arouse the person’s implicit motives. Implicit motive strength is then reflected in the thematic content of the person’s fantasy story. An alternative method of measuring implicit motives is the emotion diary, which assesses the feelings of a person throughout a day. Situations that mostly release positive emotions and are experienced as enjoyable signify congruence with one’s implicit motives. If, for instance, Peter mainly had positive emotions in situations associated with him leading and influencing people, he would probably have a strong implicit power motive.

Explicit motives, in turn, represent the person’s self-ascribed motives. They are activated by social cues (i.e., expectations of the social environment) and cause cognitive preferences, which result in explicit action tendencies. As they are explicit, they can be assessed by self-report techniques. Analogously to implicit motives, explicit motives can also be classified into motive categories.

In spite of the conceptual independence of the two systems, the manner in which they interact has significant consequences for a person’s emotional well-being, behavioral efficiency, and performance. If a person’s explicit motives do not align with his implicit motives, he may have cognitive preferences and goals that conflict with his affective preferences and needs. To achieve these goals, the person consequently has to struggle against conflicting implicit behavioral tendencies. If, in turn, he is able to become aware of his affective preferences and attains congruence with his consciously built cognitive preferences, he will have increased affective support for his actions. Unfortunately, the possibility of conflicts occurring between implicit motives and explicit goals is high, because people are often (a) unaware of their implicit motives and (b) highly influenced by others when formulating explicit goals. The two aspects are intertwined, and they may exacerbate one another.

What implications does this have for Peter Dell? Setting motive-congruent goals requires self-awareness and sensitivity to one’s own affective preferences—a process that is easily distracted by social and normative pressure. Like many people, Peter might have been unaware of his implicit motives. Let us assume that Peter has thought himself to have an achievement motive, but in fact, he might rather possess a high implicit power motive. This false impression of his own implicit motives might have additionally been consolidated by the impact of his boss, who tried to persuade him, leading him to accept the achievement-oriented goal of managing the project. However, having to start from scratch in a foreign country might frustrate rather than fulfill Peter’s implicit power motive.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that people have not only approach motives (i.e., hope of success, hope of control, and hope of affiliation), but also fear motives (i.e., fear of failure, fear of loss of control, and fear of rejection). It is therefore possible that Peter has strong fear motives of which he was not consciously aware or which he simply ignored while building his goals. Now, sitting all alone in Costa Rica, his fear motives (e.g., fear of loss of control) might be aroused, causing avoidance tendencies, which in turn might additionally be responsible for Peter’s demotivation.

Therefore, Peter’s increasing demotivation may result from an underlying conflict between his explicit goals and his dispositional motives. This mismatch between his goals and affective preferences (which stem from aroused implicit motives) may cause unwanted behavioral impulses, making goal-related action become dissatisfying and aversive. In the next paragraph, we will take a closer look at Peter’s psychological response to the presumed motive-goal conflict.

How Does Peter Succeed In The Face Of Hindering Impulses?

Kehr’s (2004b) compensatory model of work motivation and volition leads to the proposition that volitional mechanisms are required in order to overcome motive-goal conflicts such as those described above. Volition is defined here as an array of self-regulatory strategies to support goals against competing behavioral impulses from aroused implicit motives. Therefore, volition compensates for lacking or insufficient motivation, hence the name of the model. Examples of volitional strategies include motivation control (i.e., developing positive fantasies, e.g., imagining a happy ending), emotion control (i.e., lifting one’s mood, e.g., by going out for drinks), and attention control (i.e., focusing one’s attention on the task at hand). Clearly, volition is an important means for keeping one’s course of action on track in the face of motivation-related difficulties. However, volitional self-regulation does have several disadvantages.

First, volitional self-regulation is experienced as strenuous. It is not fun to volitionally support a difficult goal (i.e., staying in Costa Rica to pursue the project) against one’s competing impulses from aroused implicit motives (i.e., going home to one’s family). From early research on the delay of gratification (the famous “cookie experiments”), videos vividly document the unease and discomfort children are having when trying to refrain from eating a cookie. Thus, continuously overemphasizing cognitive preferences at the expense of affective preferences may impair a person’s well-being.

Secondly, research has shown that people differ in their ability to control their behavior volitionally. The proficiency in using volitional strategies has been labeled “volitional strength” or “self-control strength” (Kehr, 2004a; Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). Effective volition requires the development and appliance of strategies that are appropriate to the situation. Motivation control (e.g., imagining the project being a great success), for instance, might not be appropriate if, realistically, the chances of successful project fulfillment are slim.

Moreover, a person’s volitional strength may be decreased as a result of extensive volitional activity. Muraven and Baumeister (2000) showed this with a series of intriguing experiments. This led to a resource-based concept of volitional strength reflecting the fact that volitional acts may consume and ultimately exhaust volitional resources. In a related field study, Kehr (2004a) showed that high discrepancies in managers’ implicit and explicit motives (e.g., Peter thinks he is highly achievement motivated, but actually has a high implicit power motive) also leads to decreased volitional strength, which is in turn responsible for subsequent frustration and a lowered well-being.

Finally, Kuhl’s (2000) work led to the assumption that two different modi of volitional activity need to be distinguished: a functional mode of volitional activity, which he called self-regulation, and a dysfunctional, rigid mode of volition called self-control. Self-regulation largely corresponds to the concept of volition described previously. Kuhl’s notion of self-control, by contrast, is an authoritarian, self-disciplined style of action control. It comprises, among other things, impulse control (i.e., suppressing implicit impulses), intention control (e.g., Peter might constantly think about his duties), overplanning (e.g., Peter might spend too much time on planning instead of starting to act), and negative fantasies related to failure (e.g., Peter might think about being dismissed if the project fails). In principle, self-control is helpful for pursuing goals with high priority that are not embedded in the personal need structure. This is typically the case for goals imposed by others. Nevertheless, operating in the self-control mode can be maladaptive, partly because it involves negative emotions and a high amount of conscious effort. Therefore, cognitive capacities that might be used for other task-related activities are blocked and goal achievement becomes stressful. Moreover, if a person ignores unwanted and distracting behavioral impulses (e.g., if Peter ignores his impulse to spend more time communicating with his children at home), then the person foregoes opportunities to satisfy his or her needs, resulting in feelings of frustration.

Seen in this light, it becomes clear that the presumed conflict between Peter’s explicit goals and his dispositional motives requires volitional strength to compensate for the lack of motivation. It is possible that Peter has limited volitional strength in that he may be unskilled in employing the appropriate volitional strategy or in flexibly shifting strategies. Moreover, Peter’s attempts to deal with his insufficient motivation volitionally may in fact have depleted his volitional resources and thus aggravated the problem further. With increasing problems and depleting volitional strength, there is a likelihood of him slipping into the rigid self-control mode in which he simply forces himself to keep going through a rigid planning of actions (e.g., he strictly plans every step without allowing any flexibility for spontaneous actions) and negative fantasies. This may again block important cognitive resources and arouse his fear motives, causing aversive and distressed feelings.

Does Peter Face External Barriers or Obstacles?

In terms of the issue of optimal external conditions of goal achievement, action theories such as the theory of action regulation (Frese & Zapf, 1994; Hacker, 1994) can provide valuable ideas. Indeed, the goal constitutes a key element of action regulation, providing a point of reference for the continuing reappraisal of current results. Since action theorists conceive human actions to be hierarchically structured and therefore to require regulation on different cognitive levels, different goal levels can be distinguished: values; superior, long-term goals (e.g., to have a successful career); subordinate, short-term goals (e.g., to successfully conclude the project); and subgoals (e.g., to formulate a project plan). Discrepancies between the given result and the defined goal will immediately initiate a new operation intended to ultimately achieve the goal. Thus, the goal concept here integrates motivational (the goal energizes or pulls the action) and cognitive (the goal as point of reference) functions in the process of action regulation.

External working conditions may promote or impair this action regulation process. Regulation problems can be divided into regulation obstacles, regulation uncertainty, and overtaxing regulations. Regulation obstacles, which aggravate or even impede goal achievement and action regulation, include regulation difficulties (e.g., a lack of information), and unpredictable interruptions. Regulation uncertainty occurs if a person does not know how to achieve a goal, which can be due to insufficient or delayed feedback, role ambiguity, or role conflicts. Finally, overtaxing regulations refer to excessive demands regarding the speed (time pressure) and intensity (concentration requirements) of regulation. Such regulation problems can lead to work stress (in terms of additional or increased effort, and a tendency to take risky action), to second-order outcomes such as psychophysical strain, and hence may undermine the positive effects of goals.

Regarding our case study, Peter Dell may be confronted with several adverse factors impeding his action regulation. First, the superior, long-term goal (to develop a foreign market) may not be adequately subdivided into subordinate, short-term goals and a suitable action plan. Second, Peter may be confronted with certain learning barriers, for example having to become acquainted with the local inhabitants without having a sufficient command of the language. Third, unfavorable performance conditions (e.g., frequent interruptions from telephone calls in his office) may lead to additional effort and impede proceedings in his daily work tasks. Fourth, he may face a lack of information regarding the local market as well as social and business-related conventions. This information deficit may be additionally complicated by a lack of feedback about his performance and give rise to considerable feelings of uncertainty regarding how to act in terms of the project and how to interact adequately with his team, customers, and business partners. Taken together, these aversive working conditions would probably impede Peter’s capability for a successful action regulation, which otherwise might have been adequately guided and motivated by his goals.

Motivation Is Not All About Goals—It Is Also About Doing Something Joyfully

Up to here, this research-paper has focused strictly on goals. Does my goal fulfill the SMARTCH criteria? Does it harmonize with my implicit motives as well as with the rest of my goals? Do I have optimal external conditions in order to succeed? All of these questions refer to important aspects regarding the issue of whether goals are motivating or not.

Let us now change the perspective. Thus far, this research-paper might have conveyed the false impression that human beings are merely rational, calculating creatures who act with the sole intention of reaching their ultimate goals. In order to adjust this impression, we need to leave behind the somewhat limited view on personal goals as being the only motivating agent. The goal-based concept of motivation has to be supplemented by a new approach, namely the notion of activity-based incentives (Rheinberg, 1989), which means that an activity itself may be so enjoyable that it becomes its own purpose. In such a case, a person does something merely for the sake of doing it, not as a tool for reaching a specific goal in the future. Activity inherent incentives allow people to be highly motivated, to engage themselves enthusiastically, and to continuously improve their competences in activities without being dependent on volitional skills or the existence of rational goals.

Undoubtedly, this seems to be a charming idea, but what determines whether an activity offers such inherent incentives? As is usually the case, it depends on the person, or better, on the person’s implicit motives. These can be aroused by thematically congruent situations and influence the degree to which a certain situation is experienced as attractive and enjoyable.

In this respect, the concept of activity inherent incentives aligns with the concept of intrinsic motivation (for a critical review of different approaches to intrinsic motivation, see Rheinberg, 2006). Intrinsic motivation describes a behavior that is carried out for its own sake, whereas extrinsic motivation describes a behavior that is aimed at reaching a benefit which is not included in the activity itself (e.g., a bonus for successful project management). Kehr (2004b) advocated a similar notion of intrinsic motivation. Using the example of playing children, he illustrated that intrinsic motivation does not depend upon the existence of a goal. Conversely, intrinsic motivation simply requires (a) that the action is thematically congruent with the person’s aroused implicit motives and (b) that no thematically incongruent cognitive preferences (which would undermine one’s intrinsic motivation) exist at the same time. Additionally, Kehr asserted that if thematic congruence between implicit and explicit motives is combined with adequate perceived abilities, the person will experience flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). Flow experience, a specific form of intrinsic motivation, is characterized by full attention to the task, impeded sense of time, and an absence of intrapersonal conflict and self-referential or other disturbing thoughts.

Therefore, awareness of one’s implicit motives is not only important for choosing motive-congruent explicit goals; it is also essential for selecting motive-congruent activities offering activity inherent incentives.

Schultheiss and Brunstein (1999) developed a visualization technique which can help to detect motive-congruent activities. Using this technique, complex plans are subdivided into action steps. The person then anticipates and visualizes how he or she would realize each action step. The visualization triggers affective responses. Positive affective responses (which result from aroused implicit motives) signal motivational support. Hence, action steps associated with positive affect are likely to offer activity inherent incentives. Clearly, in business, it is unlikely or virtually impossible that one will always select projects and tasks which fit in with one’s own preferences and motives. People will often be forced to deal with situations that seem to be incongruent with their personal needs. In such cases, reframing can be a useful technique. Here, reframing means putting the current situation into a new frame—generally the broader picture. Framing the current activity in a broader picture generally increases the potential of the situation to arouse one’s implicit motives and therefore to satisfy one’s personal needs.

How can these ideas be transferred to Peter’s situation? Assuming that Peter had a strong implicit power motive, he would be motivated in situations in which he can exert influence and control other people. But all alone in Costa Rica, he may have lost most of his connections and influence while not yet having established a local network. Moreover, Peter’s authority in his team may currently be low due to his lack of intercultural competence and language skills. Thus, the reason for the motivational slack he is currently experiencing may be a change in his functions—his activities may no longer be fueled by his implicit power motive.

To overcome his lack of motivation, Peter could use volitional strategies which compensate for insufficient intrinsic motivation (Kehr, 2004b). However, a more profound strategy would be to strengthen his intrinsic motivation by reorganizing his functions and projects in order to achieve a maximum amount of need congruence. Here, the visualization technique described above might help. Peter might visualize single project steps and feel the affective responses. He should choose projects that give rise to positive affective responses during the visualization because these indicate motivational congruence.

If, however, Peter is forced to deal with a motive-incongruent project, he might use the reframing technique mentioned above. Having a high implicit power motive, he might emphasize the impact and status-related facets of his new position (i.e., the chance to make important contacts in Costa Rica, to gain influence and status by successfully establishing this branch, and to reinforce his authority in the team). This reinterpretation might give rise to a better congruence with his affective preferences and therefore allow him to experience his job as more satisfying and enjoyable.

The Vision: Motivation Toward A Higher Purpose

Finally, let us introduce another motivational alternative to goal setting: the vision. In organizational contexts, a vision can be defined as an idealized image of the future representing shared values and purposes.

In terms of what is known about the characteristics of effective goals, a vision seems to be merely a deficient goal. Indeed, a vision might be experienced as challenging but hardly ever meets any of the SMART criteria: A vision does not represent a detailed picture of the aspired outcomes with precise information about estimated steps, time lines, and measurable indicators of success. However, the second glance may reveal that a vision is not just a deficient goal— indeed, it is quite the opposite: A vision inspires, motivates, and orients people, even, or especially, in those situations in which no specific goals are defined or in which goals turned out to be unfeasible. An appealing vision is known to be a crucial element of outstanding leadership, especially through enhancing follower motivation (Sosik, Kahai, & Avolio, 1999). Strange and Mumford (2002) formulated five mechanisms mediating the influence of visions on the follower’s actions: First, the future image expressed in a vision indicates the venture’s direction, idea, and uniqueness. Second, visions orient actions and efforts toward a set of evocative goals. Third, visions support the feeling of identification and meaningfulness. Fourth, visions provide a general structure for the integration and coordination of activities, and finally, visions formulate beliefs that are fundamental for the development of corporate norms and structures.

Comparing goals and visions, goals operate on a conscious cognitive level, and they are based on rational facts. A vision, by contrast, is image based and seems to affect a person more unconsciously and emotionally. Furthermore, goals set a definite time frame and influence specific rational choices, whereas visions operate from a long-term perspective with a vague time frame and offer a global point of reference. All of these characteristics represent strong analogies to the dichotomy of implicit and explicit motives. If we additionally consider that personal goals are related to a person’s explicit motives (see Kehr, 2004b), it is likely that the effects of visions are based on the arousal of implicit motives. Despite the fact that this notion has not yet been empirically studied, we propose that a motive-congruent vision can arouse one’s implicit motives and hence increase one’s motivational energy. This effect may add to the effect of goals or, if strong enough, even compensate for the absence of specific goals.

What implications does this have for Peter Dell? As described above, Peter may suffer from an incongruence of his implicit motives and his explicit goals. As a consequence, Peter’s goals may have lost their motivational potential. It may now be useful to develop a vision as a new and global orientation point. Peter, with his presumably high implicit power motive, might be tempted to develop a vision such as, “I will be the tycoon of Costa Rica—influential and admired.” In terms of the distinction between the personalized power motive, in which impact is mainly used for one’s own self-interest, and the socialized power motive, which in turn relates to pursuing goals for the benefit of others (McClelland, 1973), it seems likely that this vision would arouse Peter’s personalized power motive. However, this might lead to negative reactions from his social environment. Hence, a more suitable vision might rather be aligned with Peter’s socialized power motive. It could stress the application of personal influence in helping the company to succeed or in supporting associates in building their abilities. Such a vision might also arouse Peter’s implicit power motive and give him new inspiration and motivation without producing negative reactions by others. A vision might also reestablish the experienced meaningfulness of his goals. Peter might also arrange his goals as steps on his path toward reaching the vision. Therefore, a vision might restore the motivational potential of Peter’s proximal goals and help to revive his drive, satisfaction, and identification with his objectives.


To summarize this research-paper, setting motivating goals clearly requires the consideration of a complex network of conditions: whether the goal meets concrete demands (i.e., a goal should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely, and challenging); whether it harmonizes with other personally relevant goals and, even more important, with the person’s implicit motives, needs, and preferences; whether the person has a command of regulatory strategies for supporting goals in the face of competing impulses and preferences; and whether external situational conditions support goal attainment.

This highlights how important it is not only to avoid blind acceptance of goals imposed by others (this is common sense), but also to choose one’s own goals very carefully. As illustrated by the case of Peter Dell, commitment to the wrong goals may not only destroy their motivational potential and lead to reduced performance; it might also cause substantial damage to one’s personal well-being and satisfaction.

Therefore, we wish to emphasize the value of (a) self-awareness about one’s own needs and preferences, (b) anticipation of possible conflicts with other goals or hindering external conditions, and (c) having the courage to sometimes admit that a goal may simply not be suitable for oneself. And finally, it should not be forgotten that goals are not the only motivating agents: People can also be motivated by an enjoyable and satisfying activity, as well as by a grand and moving image of the future—a vision.


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