Since the beginning of time, business owners have been trying to get their workers to want to do more to help their business succeed. There is no magic formula to help make someone more motivated, but some believe applying a goal-setting theory in the workplace is one of the best ways to boost motivation. At its core, it's really a simple concept: Set a good example, make your workers happy and proud to do their work and they are more likely to want to follow you into the trenches to be successful as a team.

If applied properly, the theory can help your employees become more present in their work together.

How Can Motivational Theory Help in Business?

To understand motivational theory and how goal-setting theory in the workplace can help make for more productive employees, you need to understand what motivates human beings on both a personal and professional level. Every human being is motivated by the constant process of satisfying needs. One model for this is laid out by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This motivational theory in psychology depicts human needs in a five-tier triangle.

At the triangle’s base are basic physiological needs that we all need just to survive: food, water, warmth and shelter, followed by safety and security. Once those needs are satisfied, a person is able to move up the triangle in an attempt to satisfy psychological needs such as making friends, having intimate relationships and belonging to a group. Next are needs that satisfy our self-esteem, such as prestige and a feeling of accomplishment. At the top of the pyramid and the ultimate goal of human needs, Maslow holds, is self-actualization, where one works on fulfilling their full potential in life.

It’s within this effort to satisfy one’s psychological needs that Edwin A. Locke’s theory of goal-setting makes the best application of motivation theories in organizations. One might think that money is the deepest motivator at work, but it actually goes deeper than that. Every worker is motivated by the psychological need to belong at work, to be committed to a cause that is important to them and to affect an outcome that serves a purpose.

Aligning the motivation employees have to meet their needs with the objectives of your business will help your business.

What is Motivational Theory?

A motivational theory is a way of viewing the question of how to motivate someone. It provides a framework for achieveing this goal.

The idea of motivational theory can be traced back to the days of the ancient Greeks, when the philosopher Aristotle wrote that purpose can cause action. Over the years, many models of motivational theory have emerged, some of them ranging from intrinsic theories that hold that an individual’s motives are concerned with the interest and enjoyment of being involved in an activity, to the extrinsic, which hold that individuals focus on the outcome of the activity itself.

Carrying this idea further, Edwin A. Locke, a psychologist from the University of Maryland in the 1960s began a 30-year study of goal-setting and the impacts that goal-setting has on human motivation. By 1968, he had developed the Goal Setting Theory to explain what motivated people in the workplace.

In his book, "Goal Setting: A Motivational Technique that Works!" Locke concluded that humans work best and are most motivated when they are working together toward a common goal.

In the 1990s, he followed up on this theory with a collaboration with Dr. Gary Latham, publishing a study confirming the link between goal-setting theory in the workplace and performance.

By applying elements of goal-setting theory to the workplace, Locke’s findings hold, supervisors and managers can help create a more productive and efficient workplace. Locke's motivational theory is an example of one that includes specific principles and actions that can be put in place to achieve the desired result.

The Five Principles of Goal-Setting

Locke’s research on motivational theory concluded that individuals who set specific, difficult-to-attain goals often perform better than those who set vague, general and easy goals. He also found that breaking goals into smaller, more attainable steps can help produce better results. According to goal-setting theory, the key determinants of motivation in the workplace are the five goal-setting principles that are crucial to setting attainable goals.

Clarity. The successful application of motivation theories in organizations holds that a clear and measurable goal is more achievable than one that is poorly defined.

The more simple and specific a goal is, the more effective the worker will be in completing the task. It’s more effective to give a salesman an objective of selling 5% more cars over last month, than it is to simply ask him to “sell more cars.” The goal is a clearly stated one, with a number attached to it that can be easily measured for success. Knowing that he will be held to that number will keep the salesman accountable.

Challenge. In order to motivate a worker to meet a goal, there should be some level of challenge to it. Every worker wants to feel as if his skill set is being put to good use, which explains why a goal with a somewhat high level of difficulty will motivate the worker to complete it.

Commitment. In order to make a task worth completing, Locke says that a deliberate effort must be put into meeting the goal. This is where an encouraging and enthusiastic team leader can make the difference in getting goals accomplished. By sharing one’s commitment and enthusiasm for a task that lies ahead, the desire for accomplishing a goal can become contagious.

In addition, sharing the commitment increases the feeling of accountability that one has towards reaching the goal. Think of your weight loss goals at the gym; when you have a coach, trainer or workout partner expecting you to be at the gym, there’s a better chance you’ll show up.

Feedback. Everyone wants to know they are doing a good job. As it turns out, getting feedback about one’s progress in reaching a goal makes one want to do better. It’s why most people get a periodic evaluation at work; by receiving information about their progress, they can adjust their goals to achieve their desired level of success. This also requires allowing room for the employee or person to ask questions to seek out the feedback they need.

An example of this is daily life is the need for positive feedback when trying to lose weight. A reading on the scale that indicates progress is important maintaing the motivation needed to stay on task.

Task complexity. The successful application of motivation theories in organizations requires that the goal-setter take into context the complexity of the goal ahead of them, and take steps to mitigate the complexity.

Offering to cook a family’s Thanksgiving dinner is an undertaking. By breaking down the goal into smaller, more manageable tasks that can be delegated – the making of the pumpkin pie or the stuffing, for example – the task becomes less daunting.

Applying Motivational Theory to the Workplace

Many successful companies have gotten where they are through the efforts of motivated employees who worked with their superiors to make their tasks more manageable. By applying the elements of goal-setting theory and setting attainable and measurable goals, companies and their employees can become more accountable and perform at a higher level.

When considering what makes a successful company flourish, experts often point to bosses such as Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic, who often is quoted as saying “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

In other words, empower your employees to be bosses themselves, and if your workplace is a good one, they’ll stick by you in your success.

Involve employees from start to finish. All workers involved in a project should be included in the entire life cycle, from conception to completion. Employees will be more motivated to do a better, more thorough job if their ideas are valued, and if they can see a project through to its completion. In this way, they will “own” the finished product.

Try inviting employees into new product meetings and asking them to come up with their own concepts and business ideas. If they feel that their input is welcome and that they are part of the creation process in the company, they will be more likely to produce quality work.

Objectives should be linked to individual goals. There is a reason that salesmen that surpass their monthly quotas usually get bonuses at the end of the period. While not every reward has to be financial, it stands to reason that employees will be much more effective if they know that their role, no matter how small, makes a difference in the project’s overall success – and by extension the success of the company they work for.

Many companies have encouraged better performance and accountability in their employees by linking business goals to business objectives and team goals. It’s no longer about one person, but the team, and the individual doesn’t want to be the reason the team fails.

Goals should be attainable. Goals should be lofty, but realistic. An employee who believes that a goal cannot be achieved may not be motivated to work hard to get to the finish line. With attainable goals, it also helps to show the employee examples of how such goals have been achieved in the past, and to set realistic milestones that the employee knows they can reach.

A clear action plan can help put those milestones on paper, with clear deadlines and checkpoints for the worker.

Adapt goals as needed. Too many businesses and project managers set goals at the beginning of the year or the project and don’t leave any wiggle room for reassessment. This is setting the employee up for failure. Remember that employees work best if they have feedback about the progress they are making.

There’s nothing wrong with setting clear goals with objectives that must be met by certain dates, but at the same time there should be some room to adapt as conditions change.

That checklist that was developed earlier should be open to some flexibility, in case something unforeseen like a change in budget should occur.

Measure goals in a SMART way. Some experts say that goals should be what are called SMART goals, that is they are specific, measurable, actionable, results-oriented and time-bound.

By doing this, project participants or employees know they have agreed to results that require their full commitment and they will be held accountable if they fall behind on their part.

Think of it this way: a person who knows they need to pick a kid up from daycare before 5 p.m. or be charged extra money is far less likely to be late. The same rationale can encourage better commitment and performance from your employees.