Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

What research tells us about helping your team achieve their goals

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Gary Latham

Managers have a lot of responsibilities, but the best managers often commit a significant portion of their time and energy to helping team members set and attain their own goals.  

Research conducted by Rotman professor Gary Latham — who coauthored the influential book A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance with Edwin Locke — suggests that goal setting motivates workers of all shapes and sizes, aligns team members on shared initiatives, and gives meaning to otherwise mundane tasks.

“It gives the employees focus, and it gets them on the same page, so one employee isn’t going in one direction while another is going in another direction,” Latham says. “It also gives employees a sense of accomplishment, gives them a challenge, and makes them feel good about themselves when the goals are attained.”

Through decades of research on goal setting Latham has identified a handful of strategies that improve the odds of success for managers and leaders as they help their employees set and achieve their goals.

Set SMART goals

While not coined by Latham himself, he endorses and has contributed research that further validates the effectiveness of the “SMART” approach to goal setting — which first appeared in a 1981 issue of Management Review, written by George Doran. The “SMART” approach to goal setting suggests that goals should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-specific

“SMART goals are excellent for employees to work in a collaborative way with a team,” Latham says. “Otherwise, you can get, for a lack of a better word, ‘meandering’ among your workforce.”

Facilitate self-efficacy

Managers can only do so much to motivate their employees directly, but at a certain point the motivation needs to come from within. According to Latham, managers can facilitate a can-do spirit and confidence in their own abilities — which he and other researchers refer to as “self-efficacy” — to help their staff achieve their goals by showing rather than telling them what they’re capable of.

According to Latham’s research, self-efficacy inspires individuals to set higher goals, enhances their commitment to achieving them, inspires better goal achievement strategies, facilitates more positive responses to negative feedback, and ultimately increases the likelihood of reaching those goals.

For example, Latham says that Rotman’s MBA program accepts a certain number of students with a liberal arts background, and it’s not uncommon for them to enter the program with some anxiety about the more quantitative aspects of business education.

“To give those students the confidence of ‘yes, I can,’ pair them up with second-year MBA students who have a liberal arts background, and have clearly gotten through the first year,” he says. “The second years can empathize with the first years and the first-year students go, ‘Wow, obviously the MBA school knew what they were doing letting me into the program, because look at the students in their second year; if they can do it so can I.’”

Latham adds that managers can help build self-efficacy among their employees by developing a formal program that pairs junior employees with higher performing colleagues of similar backgrounds.

Be a motivating force

The way in which managers and leaders carry themselves, and the way in which they communicate with their staff, can have a significant impact on individual employees’ likelihood of achieving their stated goals.

This perspective has more recently been absorbed into the conversation over workplace culture, but Latham has studied the effects of “goal priming” since the publication of his book with Locke in 1990. In their research, Latham and Locke found that subliminal communication strategies can have a significant impact on overall performance.

For example, in one experiment the researchers showed fundraisers motivational posters of someone winning a race before sending them out to ask for donations on behalf of the University of Toronto.

“Those who saw posters of an individual winning a race, raised significantly more money than those in our control condition, who were under the exact same conditions, except they didn’t see the picture,” he says.

In another study, the researchers advised a CEO to include more achievement-based terminology in their weekly Monday morning memo, peppering in words like “win,” “compete,” and “success.”

“Employees who received the Monday morning memo with achievement related words in it were more productive that week than those who received the same kind of memo from the CEO without those words,” Latham says.   

Keep goals realistic

Though it’s already part of the SMART acronym, Latham stresses that to help staff achieve their goals, managers and leaders need to ensure that they remain realistically attainable. The bar managers set for their team members should be matched to the individuals’ capabilities, and gradually increased over time.

"Managers need to constantly keep in mind the ability of the individual or individuals that they’re coaching,” he says. “Often in the workforce, people maintain high goals and then management tries to set them higher, but they stretch them so thin that it backfires, and employees give up because the goal exceeds their ability.”

He warns that setting goals too high can lead to employee resentment and even dysfunction. 

Don’t overload your staff with too many goals

Keeping goals realistically obtainable, and thus more likely to be achieved, isn’t limited to the goal’s degree of difficulty, either. Latham says that to help employees set and attain their goals, management needs to avoid overloading them with too many tasks – regardless of their degree of difficulty.

“The goals need to be few in number: three to seven goals, as opposed to 37 goals,” he says. “With 37 goals, the eyes glaze over, you lose focus, and then people start to cherry-pick the ones they’re interested in, not necessarily the ones that are of highest priority.”

Gary Latham is a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the Rotman School of Management.