Finding the Right Targets for Teams

Don’t assume the same types of goals that work with individuals will also work with teams

The essentials

A group of researchers examined whether what we know about goal setting at the individual level is also true at the team level. They focused on three types of goals: “specific learning” goals such as acquiring new skills; general “do your best” learning goals; and “specific performance” goals. They found that for teams, setting “do your best” learning goals or performance goals leads to better coordination and higher performance. Not only are specific learning goals less effective, they can actually hinder team coordination and performance, particularly as the task becomes increasingly complex.

From personal mantras to grand charter statements, individuals and teams search for motivational techniques to give them an edge. But for all the research and management ideas on the subject, there is still a fuzzy understanding of how individual and team motivation differ and how team motivation works in dynamic, real-life situations.

“We make the case that not all we know about the behaviour of individuals will necessarily generalize to teams,” says Queen’s School of Business Assistant Professor Matthias Spitzmuller. “And as researchers and practitioners, we need to be more sensitive to the dynamic and multi-level character of teams.”

Working with Guihyun Park (Singapore Management University) and Richard P. DeShon (Michigan State University), Spitzmuller reviewed all the major research relating to team motivation in order to build a framework encompassing different approaches.

They found that previous research on team motivation has overemphasized similarities between individuals and teams and that there has been very little empirical research on “the processes through which team motivation develops and through which it influences team functioning and team performance,” they write in the Journal of Management.

Spitzmuller is doing his part to help fill in the gaps. He was on a research team that examined whether what we know about goal setting at the individual level is also true at the team level. 

The researchers focused on three types of goals: “specific learning” goals such as acquiring new skills; general “do your best” learning goals; and “specific performance” goals. Previous research has shed light on when these types of goals are most effective at the individual level; for example, learning goals should be set when tasks are complex and skill is low. Surprisingly, the researchers found that this might not be the case when looking to optimize team effectiveness through goal setting.

For their study, they recruited 320 undergraduate students and divided them into four-person teams. Each team participated in a command-and-control computer simulation in which they had to complete certain tasks, which allowed the researchers to manipulate the type of goal set for the team as well as the complexity of the task itself. Team coordination, individual motivation, and team performance were measured to identify the impact of goal setting in teams.

Teams with general “do your best” learning goals or very specific performance goals did significantly better than teams with specific learning goals

The researchers found that our knowledge of how to best motivate individuals does not, in fact, hold true when trying to motivate teams. In particular, they found that teams with general “do your best” learning goals or very specific performance goals did significantly better than teams with specific learning goals. 

Moreover, they found that the mechanism leading to this disparity in performance was the level of team coordination. The “do your best” approach allows team members to better work together and support one another as they tackle a complex challenge. Not only are specific learning goals less effective, they can actually hinder team coordination and performance, particularly as the task becomes increasingly complex. 

“The availability of other members to exchange information and support one another with their work enables teams to deal more readily with these complexities, relative to individuals working alone,” the researchers note in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes

This finding has significant implications for managers and teams as they establish goals for the tasks. Management practices do not work on the basis of a one-size-fits-all approach; managers must adapt their goal-setting practices when looking to a team, rather than an individual, to successfully perform a complex task. As the researchers point out, “Managers should not assume that the same types of goals that work effectively with individuals will also work effectively with teams.” 

Kathryn Christie and Alan Morantz

 

Park, G., Spitzmuller, M., & DeShon, R.P (2013). Advancing Our Understanding of Team Motivation: Integrating Conceptual Approaches and Content Areas. Journal of Management, 39(5), 1339-1379. DOI: 10.1177/0149206312471389

Nahrgang, J.D., DeRue, D.S., Hollenbeck, J.R., Spitzmuller, M., Jundt, D.K., & Ilgen, D.R. (2013). Goal setting in teams: The impact of learning and performance goals on process and performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 122(2013), 12-21. DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2013.03.008

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