What motivates the best leaders to achieve their goals?

Setting goals can be great fun, and when we achieve what we’ve set out to do, we can feel on top of the world. But what goes into achieving a goal? Why are humans motivated by certain goals and yet we can procrastinate over others?

What’s the difference between how great leaders set and achieve their goals in comparison to others, who have grand plans, but never seem to reach the end post?

I remember when I started my PhD I couldn’t think about the ‘whole journey’, it was just too much to digest – like swallowing a pizza whole! So, I cut my PhD pizza into slices by breaking it down into smaller stages with targets and milestones as the goals I was working towards. Despite this, the thought of having to sit down and write filled me with dread and I would put it off as long as I could (not great for a PhD student right?!)

Understanding how our brains react and respond can be helpful in setting goals and sustaining motivation and performance for you, and those around you.

Motivation and goals

Setting goals is really helpful because it focuses the brain’s filter systems to attend to information that is directly relevant to the achievement of that goal. Like a radar, the brain selectively notices incoming data that may help or influence the goal, whilst at the same time, filtering irrelevant information to protect us from cognitive overload.

For example, have you ever noticed that when you think about buying a new car and you’ve almost made your decision – you’re down to the final two models – you start noticing them everywhere? This is because your brain is paying more attention, because your ‘almost decision’ has told it that these two models of car are now important to you. Psychologists call this ‘confirmation bias’. So, whilst it might seem like there are suddenly more of these cars on the road, it’s likely not the case at all; your brain just didn’t pay attention to them before.

leaders goal setting

Goals also motivate work performance. Recent neuroscience research shows that we gain more satisfaction from reviewing completed goals (compared to those yet to be completed), however we are more motivated by what still needs to be done. In effect, achieving a goal is fulfilling, while focusing on a goal to pursue is energizing. This is useful to understand when leading yourself and others – if your motivation is low, looking back at what’s been achieved will ‘fill up’ energy levels through the satisfaction of reviewing progress made.

If you’re feeling energised and motivated, focus on the work to be done and channel that energy into making further progress towards your goals.

In summary, goal setting is a prerequisite for performance as it channels attention and activates brain states that motivate us to pursue them.

leaders goal setting

Motivation – a survival drive

Our drive to take action, achieve goals and exert effort is a survival necessity. It stems from some of the deepest and oldest regions of the brain and has dense and extensive neural circuitry. We are motivated to approach or avoid situations and people based on the perceived reward of the interaction. This motivation is biologically underpinned by the balance of neuro-chemical agents in the brain that influence how we feel and respond to situations every day.

When we are motivated to pursue something, we trigger approach mechanisms that are reinforced by the neuro-chemical dopamine– the ‘happy hormone’.  By activating this system, the brain receives bio-feedback that the activity is good, rewarding, enjoyable, and we pursue it further.

When we are confronted by an avoid scenario, serotonin floods neural pathways and triggers the fight/flight response in the body if the threat is close, and emotion inhibition or ‘shut down’ if the threat is distant. This may explain why the increased exposure to ‘threatening’ news stories from around the world that we now have via technology, create a kind of ‘emotional numbing’ effect; it’s our brain’s coping system.

Even seemingly simple choices like what to wear, whether to meet friends, where to spend your evening are influenced by subconscious needs, priming and expectations. You can imagine that ‘high stakes’ situations like, ‘shall I disagree with my boss?’ are even more so.

leaders goal setting

The chemical balances in our neural networks are key to reinforcing how we feel about, and consequently respond to, situations we are exposed to every day.

Think back to your last performance review at work, or even your New Years’ resolutions – were they approaching something, or avoiding something?

Approach goals vs. Avoidance goals

Approach goals focus on a positive mindset and on achieving something. They trigger a ‘want’ mindset with a focus on possibilities and opportunities.

Avoidance goals focus on negative experiences and losing / stopping / reducing something. They trigger a ‘should’ mindset with a focus on threats and self-protection.

Examples of approach vs. avoidance goals:

The personal factor at play

There are also significant individual variations in how we are motivated to pursue goals. Reinforcement sensitivity theory, originally developed in the 1970’s by psychologist John Gray, differentiates between reward and punishment sensitivity, which influences the emotions associated with our motivation to pursue a goal.

Individuals with a reward disposition experience positive emotions such as hope and elation when considering a goal. The neuro-chemical dopamine would be causing and reinforcing these positive emotions. As a result, the goal feels right and there is motivation to move towards, or approach it.

Those with a punishment disposition are more likely to view goals with a fear of failure lens. The risk that the goal may not be able to be achieved generates the negative emotions of fear and anxiety, reinforced by the neuro-chemical serotonin. The prospect of the goal feels uncomfortable and the consequent motivation is to avoid it. Recent neuroscience studies confirm the behavioural activation and inhibition foundations of Gray’s model.

Approach Motivation

leaders goal setting


How do successful leaders set (and achieve) their goals?

Successful leaders look for and take on new challenges; they enjoy achievement and set challenging and ambitious goals, they have the energy to motivate themselves and others, and are able to stay the course when goals are challenging and long term.

So what’s the key to motivating yourself?

Set approach goals

There’s nothing wrong with an occasional focus on the negative if it helps you achieve something positive. However, research indicates that the pursuit of a greater number of avoidance goals is related to less satisfaction and more negative feelings about progress with personal goals, decreased self-esteem, personal control and vitality, less satisfaction with life, and feeling less competent in relation to goal pursuits.

Overall, approach goals are pleasurable;avoidance goals are stressful– which one will keep you motivated? Choose wisely!

leaders goal setting

Make sure your goals are meaningful

Simon Sinek suggests that we ‘start with why’ and this is a good tip because meaning and purpose are powerful sources of motivation. It is important that your goals – particularly long-term ones – align with your values and move you toward your hopes. Think about your long-term goals – do they move you towards something that really matters to you?

There’s little point in just setting a goal like “I want to earn more money” because this doesn’t really access the true reason behind you wanting more money. If you’ve explored your ‘why’ for this goal and discovered you want to earn more money because you want to save enough to buy an investment property for your child to inherit (and you will therefore feel like a great parent), then link this to your goal for an increased chance of reaching it. (When you review your goals, ensure your reason(s) for wanting to achieve them are included so you feel the emotional connection to them for a motivation boost each time).

Reframe your motivation for achieving the goal

Research indicates that it is easier to stay motivated if you see your goals as an opportunity to learn something new, rather than as a means of doing something. Identifying what you will learn as you progress towards the goal will help you stay motivated to achieve it.

Following on from the above example about wanting to earn more money, you might hate confrontations with your senior leaders and negotiating personal financial matters. So, by setting yourself a goal like this, you know you will have to learn the skills and confidence in overcoming these things.

Write your goals down

Something happens when we write our goal down – it becomes ‘more real’ than if we just kept it in our head. Record your goals in a way that makes it clear why they are important to you. Spend a few minutes each day looking at your goals and replaying the ‘outcomes’ like a movie so you can visualise what goal achievement looks like.

Instead of typing your goals, put pen to paper and do it the old fashioned way! Your mind will be much more focussed on the task of writing your goals, and thinking about it, and you won’t be distracted. If you use a diary at work, look at your goals before starting your day so you are reminded of your ‘why’ before diving into tackling your inbox.

Share your goals

When we share our goals with people whose opinions we care about, we create what’s called attention density in our brains. This means that we apply more attention to achieving that goal because we don’t want to ‘let ourselves down’ in the eyes of the other person. Sharing your goals will add ‘ego-accountability motivation’ to the mix.

But pick your accountability partner wisely! They need to fully support your goals and not put you off, or let you fall off the wagon too easily or too often. They need to have your best interests at heart and remind you why you’re trying to achieve your goal, without dismissing it.

leaders goal setting

Monitor your progress and celebrate

Keep a journal or use an app to keep track of what you achieve each day that contributes towards your goal, however small that step might be. Reward yourself for achieving milestones and remember to think of this in terms of what you have learned so far, as well as what you have achieved.

How to motivate others to achieve their goals

If you’re a leader, then you know that people are happy when what matters to them is also important to others.

  • Get to know your people
    – what are their values, interests, hobbies etc.? Do they have a reward or punishment disposition? This will help you understand how to create goals that meet their motivation needs. Ask them about non-work related goals they’d like to share with you, and make sure you’re open about your own goals too. You might even find that you have something in common.
  • Remove barriers to progress
    – ask what they need to do their work exceptionally well and where possible, act on what they tell you. If they’re trying to streamline a process but procurement won’t change their out-dated way of doing things, how can you provide support and guidance?
  • Delegate often
    – give your team responsibility for delivering challenging work, as this will motivate them to know you trust them.
  • Praise and Celebrate
    – be the cheerleader for your employees’ progress, small wins and milestones.

As a leader, people will look up to you and watch how you go about your goal setting and goal achieving. It’s important to recognise your own motivation for achieving goals and ensure you have a good balance of approach and avoidance goals, depending on the levels of anxiety or stress you’re willing to deal with in order to achieve them. Your team will admire you even more when you share your successes (and inevitable setbacks) with them on a shared or personal goal, and of course sharing a success as a team is always a great motivator.

Related posts:

Is a lack of confidence limiting your leadership impact?

Are you a hopeless leader?

Need some goal guidance?

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Copyright 2019: Dr Paige Williams

Paige Williams, PhD

Paige Williams, PhD

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach

Paige helps leaders elevate their impact to lead teams who deliver results and create a culture that feeds high performance.

Leveraging Leadership for positive purposeful impact.