Goal setting and achievement thinking--the key to project and professional success


Achievement-motivated people not only think about what they want to accomplish, but they also give attention to processes and take action to accomplish their goals. They are continuously thinking about what obstacles or blocks they might encounter where they can get help, and how they will feel if they succeed or fail in reaching their goals.

This paper presents an overview of three key motivators that drive project stakeholders, illustrates a simple but effective model for identifying and planning for professional development and behavior change, and addresses several factors that should be considered when taking an achievement-oriented approach to goal setting and action planning.

All stakeholders vary in what motivates them. However, most managers are motivated by three primary things – the opportunity to work with other professionals, the ability to influence the organization and its output, and the desire to meet or exceed objectives with respect to task accomplishment. Successful people are never satisfied with the status quo, especially with their own capabilities. They continuously think about doing something unique, meeting or surpassing standards or excellence, and advancing his or her career through personal and professional development.

Professional development is a continuing cycle of setting goals, modifying behaviors to accomplish those goals, and evaluating progress. Project success and team members’ professional development depends on each person taking responsibility for their own actions and developing appropriate change and improvement goals. Goal setting is a critical part of preparing for personal change and accomplishing project objectives. Well written goals provide motivation, focus attention, serve as a basis for managing performance, and evaluating change.

Getting from the “As-Is” to the “To-Be”

Goals are about change, and more specifically, they are often about behavior change. Goal setting and action planning are rational ways of charting a path from a recognized, current set of conditions (the As-Is) to a more desirable set of conditions in the future (the To-Be). Exhibit 1 identifies a basic set of steps that everyone goes through, either formally or informally, when making any type of behavior change.

1. Goal Setting begins with a recognition of the current condition or the “As-Is” – Goal setting in a work situation typically begins with a recognition of a problem such as a critical equipment issue, system problem, or lack of resources, and reduced funding.

2. A picture of the desired condition or the “To-Be” state must come next – This is an awareness of “the way it ought to be.” The more clearly the future state can be defined and envisioned, the easier it will be to create a viable action plan to reach the goal.

3. Assess the gap - Once the current and the desired conditions have been determined, the discrepancy between them needs to be clearly identified. It is important to understand not only but also the size of gap, but also the details of why the gap is so large. A good way to determine the gap size is to simply ask some basic questions such as, “What is the difference between how I currently perform and how I could perform?” and “What is the difference in the current operational process and the desired process?”

4. Identify the real reason for the change – What is the primary motive for needing to make the change? When involving a personal change, this step might involve a great deal of introspection. Organizational changes will also require some level of introspection, but trying to get all stakeholders to agree upon the reason for the change might be difficult. At the organizational level, the reason for the change is likely to be driven by the most senior decision maker.

5. Make a commitment to change – Once the gaps are identified and the need for change is acknowledged, it is necessary to make a commitment to do something about the discrepancies. Commitment is the expressed desire for change. If there is little or no commitment, there might be an immediate response, but no long-term change. If the underlying reason for making the change is externally driven, for example by a supervisor or some other stakeholder, the level of commitment is likely to be less than if it is internally driven. Externally driven goals, often get more “movement” than motivated commitment. It is beneficial to publicly express a commitment to change in order to convince others in the organization to help and provide encouragement in attaining the goals.

6. Set a specific change goal – A goal that meets the four basic criteria for goal setting should be documented:

  • Behaviorally specific – State what is specifically to be accomplished
  • Measurable – How will goal accomplishment be measured? Can someone, other than the person setting the goal, determine if it has been achieved?
  • Realistic, but challenging – If a goal is unattainable, eventually it will be abandoned and lesser results will be considered acceptable. It the goal accomplishment is considered to be a certainty, there is likely to be very little drive to get it done.
  • Time-phased – Goals without a timeline or deadline for accomplishment provide no sense of urgency and, as a result, are very easy to put off until later because of other priorities.

7. Develop and implement an action plan – Only after a goal has been set is it possible to develop and implement a realistic action plan for the goal’s attainment. This plan should also consider obstacles and resources for help.

Goal Setting Model

Exhibit 1 – Goal Setting Model

It is not enough to simply write a goal statement. It is necessary to consider all of the factors that drive people to set goals and influence their ability to accomplish those goals. One of the most important factors in Exhibit – 1 is item number four - understanding the primary motive or need underlying the goal. In other words, why is it important to go through the effort to make the change? Just as with a business case or a project charter, without clearly understanding what is driving the effort, the results are not likely to be as satisfactory as desired; or worse the wrong goals might be set.

What Really Motivates Project Stakeholders

Most people are aware of the classic motivational theories – Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (2010), Frederick Herzberg’s Hygiene Factors and Motivators (), and Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y(n.d.), just to name a few. The basic principle behind all motivational theories is that stakeholders’ motives generate a set of thoughts which, in turn influence their behavior, which will drive them toward goal accomplishment. This motive – thought – behavior process is fundamental to why and how people set goals and take specific actions to accomplish those goals. Everyone involved with a project will have different thoughts and displayed behaviors.

Motive-Thought-Behavior Process

Exhibit 2 – Motive-Thought-Behavior Process

Three primary motives

Maslow, Herzberg and McGregor conducted research and developed theories about human motivation that explored motivation at all organizational and personal levels. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that there are five motivational factors, (1. physiological, 2. safety, 3. social, 4. esteem, 5. self-actualization,) structured in a hierarchy such that the lower level needs must be satisfied before the next hierarchical level can become a motivator. Herzberg emphasized that there are two basic categories of factors that influence behavior – hygiene factors (similar to the Maslow’s first three levels) and maintenance factors (similar to Maslow’s upper two levels.) McGregor’s work focused on the manger’s view of the worker, (Theory X – workers are lazy and must be coerced and Theory Y – workers are valuable resources and will do a good job when given a chance.)

Dr. David C. McClelland’s research and studies on motivation resulted in the development of a theory about the strengths of the three social motives in individuals (McClelland, 1961) His contributions to the field of motivational study for over 40 years classifications these three motivating needs as the Need for Affiliation, the Need for Power, and the Need for Achievement (McClelland, 1961, p. 73; McCle1land 1987, p. 198) and are commonly found in most managers. All three motives have their relevance to management, leadership, and organizational dynamics since all three contribute to an organization’s effectiveness and influence an individual’s behavior.

  • Need for Affiliation – People with a high need for affiliation are moved to act because of their positive interest in and concern for others or their concern about being disliked, disapproved of, or rejected. They tend to think about developing and maintaining close friendships, being with others to enjoy their company, being separated from others, disruption or restoration of relationships, and viewing group opportunities as social activities.

    Those who are motivated by affiliation will typically be very social. They will frequently be seen socializing and talking with others. When given the choice they will choose to be with others rather than alone and join many social groups, clubs, and on-line network groups. They will generally put people before tasks and will choose to work with friends over experts. Affiliation motivated people constantly seek approval, are empathetic and caring, and often make decisions and communicate based on what others might think and feel. (McClelland, 1987, Ch. 9, pp. 333ff.)

  • Need for Power – People with a high need for power are motivated by the ability to exercise control and influence. They think about taking strong and forceful action that affects others. They often give help, advice, or support (especially when unsolicited). Power motivated people are continually developing strategies to control people, get their opinion accepted, and shape situations.

    Power motivated people are active in the organization’s politics, seeks positions of leadership, and can be seen networking effectively to meet organization’s goals. They can usually be identified by their “I-love-me” walls because they are known to collect and display objects of prestige. They also seek, withhold, or use information to control others. (McClelland, 1987, Ch. 8, pp. 268ff.)

  • Need for Achievement – Stakeholders with a high Need for Achievement not only spend time thinking about achievement goals, but they think about how to attain goals, what obstacles or blocks they might encounter, where they can get help, and how they will feel if they succeed or fail. They have a strong desire for success and an equally strong fear of failure. Achievement motivated people have an intense desire to outperform someone else, such as, performing better than their predecessors, contemporaries, a competing organization. They focus on meeting or surpassing a self-imposed standard of excellence and always want to do things better, faster, cheaper, more efficiently, or of a higher quality than others – being “good enough is not good enough.” Achievement motivated managers rely upon their entrepreneurial spirit in that they think about doing something unique or innovative.

    Achievement motivated people set challenging, but realistic, goals for themselves and others. Never satisfied with the status quo, they continuously seek performance-related feedback, whether positive or negative with the view that any feedback can be used to improve. They are by nature risk takers who take calculated risks by analyzing and assessing problems and solutions. As a result, they tend to take the initiative, are creative, and are not paralyzed by failure, but learn from it. When they do fail, they take personal responsibility for their actions and when given a choice, they will choose experts over friends in work-related situations. (McClelland, 1987, Ch. 7, pp. 223ff.)

All people have some degree of all three motives. For example, a project manager who has a deliverable due wants to make sure that it is delivered on time – Achievement motive. The entire project team needs to work late to get the deliverable accomplished. The project manager has a family obligation and does not want to miss another family activity, but the manager does not want to let down the team by leaving early – Affiliation motive. The project manager also is aware that because the team members have been working late, that they might need to be pushed to stay. However if they are successful, then the project manager will increase the probability of getting a promotion – Power motive.

While a person’s motives to some extent are innate, they can be increased with focus and effort and may change as the person moves upward in the organization or to another position. As a project team member, the primary motivator is likely to become or remain a group member – a need for affiliation. As the person moves into the position of team lead, project manager, or decision maker, there tends to be more emphasis placed on the need for power (the need to influence) and achievement (need to succeed), then on the need for affiliation (need to be liked or accepted.)

Achievement Thinking in a Project Environment

Motives lead people to have recurrent thoughts that are often in the form of concerns about what is needed, how to obtain it, and about the feelings that would accompany reaching or not reaching the goal. Exhibit 3 illustrates basic set of thoughts and actions that achievement motivated people consider as they plan and set goals to move from the current state to the desired state.

Throughout this process there are specific elements that need to be considered. In this process not only does the person express what they want to accomplish, but they need to clearly understand why it is important to accomplish the goal. They will generally anticipate their likelihood of achieving or not achieving the stated goal, as well as, how they will feel if they are successful or unsuccessful at the end and while accomplishing intermediate steps. Achievement thinkers identify obstacles that can prevent them from being successful. These obstacles might be within themselves or due to some external force. In both cases, help may be required to overcome the obstacles.

Achievement Thinking Process (Adapted from McClelland 1987, p. 193)

Exhibit 3 – Achievement Thinking Process (Adapted from McClelland 1987, p. 193)

The elements to achievement thinking that influence the ability to accomplish goals and objectives illustrated by an organizational and personal example are provided below. (Exhibit 4)

Elements to Achievement Thinking

Exhibit 4: Elements to Achievement Thinking

  • The underlying motivational need – N: Achievement thinkers know what their goals are and they think about how much and how deeply they want to attain them. (Exhibit 5)
    Underlying motivation need – N

    Exhibit 5: Underlying motivation need - N

  • Positive Expectations – E(p): Achievement thinkers expect to be successful. In planning, achievers set realistic and challenging goals. E(p) comes from the realistic dimension of goal setting. Because their goals are realistic, achievement thinkers constantly focus on the thought that their goals will be achieved. People will base expectations on the level of confidence they have in their own knowledge, skills, and abilities, as well as, the perceived availability and quality of resources and stakeholder support. (Exhibit 6)
    Positive Expectations – E(p)

    Exhibit 6: Positive Expectations – E(p)

  • Realistic Expectations – E(r): Achievement thinkers understand that with any goal there is the potential for failure because they set goals that are also challenging. Achievement thinkers have a healthy concern for failure, but are not paralyzed by it. This makes them work harder to ensure that they do whatever then can to reduce the probability of failure and ensure goal achievement. Realistic expectations are not the same as negative expectations. Someone with realistic expectations acknowledges potential failure, while someone with negative expectations assumes failure. (Exhibit 7)
    Realistic Expections – E9r)

    Exhibit 7: Realistic Expections – E9r)

    Action steps (ACT): Action thinking is what Achievement Thinkers do when they plan in advance what they must do to achieve their goals. (Exhibit 8)

    Action steps (ACT)

    Exhibit 8 – Action steps (ACT)

  • Positive Feelings – F(p): Positive feelings arise when achievement thinkers make definite progress toward their goals. Feelings of pride, happiness, enjoyment, or satisfaction spur them on. (Exhibit 9)
    Positive Feelings – F(p)

    Exhibit 9 – Positive Feelings – F(p)

  • Negative feelings – F(n): Negative feelings arise when Achievement Thinking fails to make progress toward their goals. Feelings associated with defeat, such as discouragement, leads them to figure out how to do better. (Exhibit 10)
    Negative feelings – F(n)

    Exhibit 10 – Negative feelings – F(n)

  • Barriers – B(e): When achievement thinkers try to get ahead, they become aware of and think about things that that are outside of there immediate control but that could get in their way. (Exhibit 11)
    Barriers – B(e)

    Exhibit 11: Barriers – B(e)

    Internal Barriers – B(i): Sometimes personal shortcomings stand between Achievement Thinkers and their goals, such as not having enough knowledge, the right skills, or enough self-confidence. (Exhibit 12)

    Internal Barriers – B(i)

    Exhibit 12 – Internal Barriers – B(i)

  • Help – (H): When achievement thinkers are confronted with obstacles that they cannot personally overcome, they identify sources of help. They actively seek assistance and advice from available resources to overcome these obstacles, while still maintaining personal ownership of the goal and the plan. (Exhibit 12)
    Help (H)

    Exhibit 12 Help (H)


What motivates a person plays a significant role in how they think and behave. Generally there are three needs – Affiliation, Power, and Affiliation – that motivate most managers. By extension, these motives play a key part in the creation and management of productive project teams. Much has been written on the impact of motivation on goal setting and action planning and the degree to which motivation contributes to goal accomplishment – success or failure. By applying an achievement-thinking approach to the goal setting process managers are more likely to achieve their personal, professional, and organizational goals.

Motives lead to thoughts about what is needed, how to obtain it, and about the feelings that would accompany reaching or not reaching the goal. As part of the achievement-thinking process, successful managers also think about the probability of success and failure, internal and external barriers to success, and resources to overcome those barriers.

Goal setting and achievement thinking does not guarantee success; but not considering their related factors will almost always guarantee failure.

douglas mcgregor - theory x y (n.d.) In businessballs.com. Retrieved from http://www.businessballs.com/mcgregor.htm.

Frederick Herzberg (2010) In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick Herzberg

Livingston, J.S. (1988, September-October) Pygmalion in Management HBR Classic, Retrieved on June 15, 2010 form http://www.e-learningforkids.org/Courses/Coaching_for_Results/res/media/hbr/88509.pdf

Locke, E.A. & Latham, G.P. (1990). A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Maslow, A. (2010) Maslow’s hierarchy of needs In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

McClelland, D.C. (1961) The Achieving Society, New York, N.Y.: The Free Press

McClelland, D.C. (1987) Human Motivation, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

© 2010, Lowell D. Dye
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington DC



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