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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