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How can motivation theories help us to achieve our goals?

This month, I am continuing the theme of successful goal attainment and its relationship to motivation.

You have a new goal at work. It’s a SMART goal that is well-defined and achievable, perhaps at a bit of a stretch. It has a clear timeframe and you've developed the steps you need to take to accomplish your goal. However, after a good start you are now struggling to make progress. Perhaps your motivation is lacking?

Successfully achieving your goals has a lot to do with your motivation towards them. There are a number of theories of motivation, but in a work goal-setting context, my favourite one is self-determination theory. Developed and tested by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (Deci and Ryan, 2008), a key assumption underpinning the theory is that it is in our nature as humans to strive for growth and fulfilment.

Self-determination theory proposes that there are three human needs driving motivation: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Each of these needs must be met, with a sweet spot for each of us where the level of autonomy, competence and relatedness optimally align, for peak performance and general well-being.

Autonomy is the need to feel in control of one’s behaviours and goals.

Competence is the need to master tasks and develop new skills.

Relatedness is the need to feel connected to others and have a sense of belonging.

Where your goals allow you to feel autonomy, competence and relatedness, your intrinsic motivation for the activities that help to achieve the goal are likely to be enhanced. And further good news for successfully attaining your goal is that intrinsic motivation, where you feel an inherent reward in engaging in a particular activity, has been shown to support a longer lasting behaviour (Deci and Ryan, 2008).

I like to think of these three human needs as different paths, each of which may be being pursued or realised to a greater or lesser extent at different times, but which merge together to create the sense of self-determination that is felt when each is optimised.

Going back to that work goal that doesn’t seem to be progressing. How much choice did you have in selecting this goal? Was it one that you set or did someone else suggest it? If so, you may not feel the level of autonomy required to be motivated to the goal. Does your goal require you to learn a new skills or gain mastery of something, and do you feel you have the skills you need to be successful? If your goal is one that you have each year that doesn't require you to increase your expertise, your motivation may be lacking. Or, perhaps you are concerned about the skills needed and don't have support or time to develop the skill, which will also reduce your motivation to work towards the goal. Does your goal provide you with a sense of belonging, of feeling respected and respecting others in turn? Perhaps the goal is a stretch too far, or way too easy to achieve, both of which may reduce your perception of relatedness.

Next time you are struggling to find the motivation to work towards a goal, check to see how well each of the three needs of Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness are being fulfilled. If there are areas that are lacking, determine what you can put in place to increase it.


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