The Tension of Targets: Motivating Or Manipulating?

by Stacey Barr |

We’ve all seen performance targets that work and ones that don’t. They can motivate teams to make big-step improvements or they can manipulate teams into behaviours that sabotage other important results. So should we get rid of targets? Or can we do something else to make them work?

injured soccer player

A physiotherapist I know used to work for the English Premier League. He tells me stories of what it’s like keeping multi-million-pound players on the pitch, game after game.

In one of our early conversations he was explaining how players are paid something like 60,000 pounds for scoring a goal in a game. That’s over and above their fee for each game they play, and each game their team wins.

What behaviour does this drive? If you’ve ever watched a soccer game, you’ll notice they behave differently to the players of other football codes. They seem to fall over a lot, and almost every time they fall over, they seem to be in excruciating pain.

The referee is implored to award a penalty kick, and arguments can break out. Then seconds later, whatever the referee’s decision, the fallen player is up and playing like nothing happened.

And when you see the slow-mo replay, you would swear that it was air that tripped them over. The air that was between them and the opposition player they pleaded with the referee to give a penalty against. If the referee obliges, then the penalty kick they are awarded with (and no doubt the 60,000 pounds they earn if their kick lands a goal) is such a soothing balm that the excruciating pain of their injury vanishes.

Hmmm. Are you suspecting what I’m suspecting? That perhaps the love of the beautiful game is eclipsed only by the love of the monetary rewards for scoring goals?

As my physiotherapist friend has observed over his career, he watches the young children enter the game with a passion for playing it, and as they climb through the ranks and grades, their passion for the game is pushed aside as the pressure of performance takes over. Professional soccer is a business, not a game.

Rewards for hitting targets play with the dark side of human motivation. Especially when the targets we reward people for hitting are for the benefit of others and not for the intrinsic benefit of them.


What do you believe is best role for targets, in motivating performance? What would happen if we got rid of targets? What should we do differently if we were to keep them?

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  1. Gerry Prewett says:

    Stacey, you have touched on one of my passions here, the evil of excessive rewards in football! I grew up in the 1950’s -60’s in the UK. There was a maximum pay for footballers of 10 Pounds per WEEK at that time. Most top EPL players get paid that amount every MINUTE now (besides sponsorships). Players then played for their local clubs and had pride in representing their local team. Now they go where the money is, money drives everything.
    A case in point is Liverpool and England starlet Roheem Sterling (or Pounds Stirling as he has been nicknamed) who still has years left to run on a contract worth 35,000 pounds per week but now DEMANDS in excess of a quarter of a million per week or he will go elsewhere. These players are strongly influenced by Agents’ who earn their commission from fees when players sign new contracts.

    We have just seen the murky world of money in football with the revelations at FIFA, this is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m sorry to say that at the top level, the beautiful game is not so beautiful.

    You are correct in relating this back to play-acting and unsportsmanlike behaviour now seen the world over. Retrospective punishments have been introduced for foul play that went unpunished live and for ‘simulation’. I was only discussing in work this week with a colleague a notorious case where Louis Suarez of Uruguay punched a ball over the bar in a World Cup game in the last minute. He was sent off, the opposition missed the penalty and Uruguay went through to the next round. He was a national hero, but a cheat!

    There is a ‘win at all costs’ mentality in the game and rules and laws seem to be ignored. Sad but true

  2. Michael Hernandez says:

    Hi Stacey,
    My initial thoughts are that they are two elements to this topic; how do you communicate about performance targets, if at all, and then how you reward people for hitting them.
    I think it is essential to communicate with precision, clarity and comprehensiveness. How can people deliberately perform to achieve unless they clearly understand what their performance targets are and how to achieve them?
    But one does need to understand varying human conditions to explore if incentives will more likely support performance results or undermine them. There are always various levels of performance measures ranging from individual to organizational. In my opinion, if those are in conflict then incentives for one will likely undermine the achievement of the other.
    I am not a psychologist or psychotherapist, but I am human. And my experience tells me that humans generally act in their own interests and if those are aligned with the group’s interests then you have a greater probability for overall success.

  3. John Matthew says:

    Stacey, I believe that targets are fine for business (even essential) but that they should be TEAM targets rather than individual – such as those for the soccer player. (I cannot bring myself to say “football”!) People should know the long term vision for the business – along with associated goals or targets. Then teams should be engaged so that they know why the team performance is vital in achieving overall goals. Individuals play their part as contributing to the team goal, which is, in turn, vital to that of the business.
    In this way, the overall target should not appear daunting, as there are various teams, all having individual members as contributors.

    • Free Polazzo says:

      I agree, John, that the team is who should be rewarded for the results they produce. The person who scores cannot do that unless someone passed the ball to them. (assists) and the team cannot win unless the goali and the defenders can do their part to prevent their opponents from scoring.

      Paying bonuses only for goals sounds divisive of team morale. Reminds me of having to write bonus checks to salespeople but never to the accounting departments who had to bill and collect for those “big sales numbers”.

  4. The answer is actually simple: it is not about measures/kpis/metrics, it is about business goals.

    When people come to us and ask about a good KPI for …, the thing that we are trying to do is to understand their business context. Why they need a KPI, what are their business goals, and so on.

  5. Chris Bennett says:

    Hi Stacey, After more years in business than I care to remember, I’m beyond certain that targets create more problems than they solve. When we make quotas, well no big deal – they probably weren’t ambitious enough .. let’s make them harder next year! If we miss quota: holy smokes, look out! Disaster! Targets can seem like a good idea but more often than not all they really do is DE-motivate us.

    Same with Balanced Scorecard – no one ever says what to do when some of the KPI’s head south. You try fixing them and end up hurting the ones that were ok! Meanwhile net profits – the things you were trying to nudge up in the first place – just meander along their own sweet way.

    I don’t really know what the answer is 🙁

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