For most of us the emotions that a goal engenders, such as excitement, are simply not considered or discussed. But research shows that it’s the emotional reaction to a goal that ultimately dictates motivation and engagement in the people tasked to deliver it.
Shane Lopez, a leading psychologist on hope, resilience and motivation says in his latest book “Making Hope Happen”: “The truth is our rational strategic thinking about goals is spurred on by our emotions. As a result we invest the most resources and make the most gains on goals we are excited about”. This may seem blindingly obvious, but in my experience it is not often considered!
Let’s take a real life example from someone I was coaching recently. Her team was handed down a very challenging corporate goal. They were tasked with generating double digit growth in a mature and declining market in which they already held high market share. This was in support of a plan for uninterrupted dividend pay-outs throughout the company’s entire existence of over 100 years. She said it was like being asked to climb Mount Everest without oxygen - impossible to achieve. Put yourself in her shoes and imagine how you would have felt in the same situation. A typical response could be fear and de-motivation, leading to risk aversion, closing the mind to innovation and a tendency towards a blame culture.
Could the leaders that set that corporate goal have done it differently? I would say yes. They could have followed this 5 step approach to create engagement and a positive emotional response:
- Acknowledge the size of the challenge – acknowledge that a fear of failure, anxiety and of feeling overwhelmed would not be a surprising response.
- Remind people of other seemingly huge goals they have achieved in the past and draw out the strengths they used to do that.
- Let people talk about it – explore and critique, offer different perspectives and test the assumptions. This starts engagement.
- Turn around the “story” to make it more meaningful and exciting for the delivery teams e.g. acknowledge it is a huge task but “think about how special it would be to be part of the team that achieves it”
- Start asking what might be possible, what could happen, and what might be needed to create possibilities, pathways and buy-in, even if they do not fully deliver all of the goal now.
A key learning from recent research is that leaders need to anticipate, create and manage the right emotional response in themselves and others in order to deliver big goals. In most corporate cultures leaders try to rationalise and almost “de-emotionalise” business goals. Whilst it’s true that this generates rational, concrete goals that appear logical, what emotions are they creating – fear or excitement?
Positive emotions like excitement create the will to engage fully, to innovate, problem-solve imaginatively and to go the extra mile. So when goal setting add an important question to your process “What’s the exciting challenge here?”