Motivation 101: How Distinguishing the 6 Types of Motivation Can Improve Your Productivity and Well-Being

Asking “How can I get motivated?” is the wrong question! We are all motivated—but there are different types and qualities of motivation. Learn about the six different types of motivation, and how we can achieve more autonomous, better self-regulated motivation that boosts our effectiveness and livelihood.

“Being a professional,” Julius Erving once said, “is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” Erving had an intrinsic motivation to play basketball—but even that wasn’t enough to play at the superior level that was his trademark. Motivation is complex…you don’t just have it or lack it…it comes in different types. It takes conscious development, and self-discipline like Julius Erving’s, to achieve high quality motivation that produces amazing results and makes a whole, healthy, happy being.

In my previous article, Motivation 101: Why Rewards Often Don’t Work, we explored the first of two factors that affect people’s performance at work and their feeling of well-being in the work environment–The extent to which people meet their basic psychological needs. The three primary needs related to motivation are:

  1. Perceiving to have a choice in work decisions (Autonomy)
  2. Feeling related to others and to a higher purpose (Relatedness)
  3. Feeling challenged and able to increase abilities (Competency).

Now, let’s look at the second factor affecting performance and well-being—The types of motivation. Helping ourselves or others move toward a higher level of self-regulated, autonomous motivation leads to higher levels of innovation, accomplishment, and good health.

SDTAsking whether we or our workers are motivated, or how motivated they are, isn’t a very useful question. We are all motivated, all the time…but the type and direction of our motivation might not be the best for accomplishing goals or achieving happiness. A worker sitting in an important meeting thumbing through his Facebook feed is motivated—motivated to play with social media; but that motivation isn’t in a direction beneficial for his organization or for his longer term development. A worker playing video games or social media during a meeting probably has the most natural type of motivation—inherent, or intrinsic motivation. Inherent motivation comes in doing things that we love to do, just for the joy of doing them. People pursuing hobbies that have no reward other than the enjoyment of the action are inherently motivated. But to reach more optimum results in organizations and in personal lives, we need to recognize different types of motivation that are associated with increasing levels of self-regulation.

People who have jobs that they love just for the sake of doing it are extremely fortunate, indeed…but for the rest of us in the vast majority, we rely on supplementing any intrinsic motivation with various types of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation means that our behavior comes from some source outside of ourselves—which can be physical rewards or punishments, or more abstract sources like a sense of obligation or commitment to values. Researchers identify four or five different types of extrinsic motivation, that can be aligned on a spectrum from types that are controlled, with low levels of self-regulation, to types that are autonomous, with high self-discipline.  Less effective motivation results when people feel they are being compelled, or controlled, by threat of punishment, promise of reward, or social pressures to behave a certain way. At higher levels of self-regulation, people with autonomous motivation, according to  Self-Determination Theory pioneers Deci, Olafson, and Ryan, are “engaged in an activity with a full sense of willingness, volition, and choice.” With higher quality levels of motivation, people’s psychological needs are also better satisfied. We can consider more autonomous, self-disciplined motivation as “optimal” in the sense that it is more engaged, enthusiastic, and sustainable.  Researcher Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, graphs the relationship between the types of motivation, the level of self-discipline involved in each type, and the extent to which the three basic psychological needs are met, which I combine in the illustration below with concepts and terms (those in parentheses) from Self-Determination Theory.


Motivation Types-Definitions

Disinterested – A lack of motivation. Not all sources will list this as a type of motivation.

External – Direct control over behavior by using threats of punishment or promise of reward.

Imposed (Introjected) – Behavior motivated by a lower form of self-control, such as a desire to please others or avoid disapproval.

Aligned (Identified) – Behavior resulting from personally identifying with the importance and value of that behavior.

Integrated – Fully engaged and purposeful behavior resulting from resolving any identity or alignment conflicts.

Inherent (Intrinsic) – Behavior engaged in just for the enjoyment of it, not requiring any external reward. Whereas this motivation satisfies psychological needs, and is highly autonomous, it does not require any great amount of self-regulation. Because it is inherent, it is sustainable, but may not always be positive.

Motivation Types-Examples

To further clarify, let’s take an example of a behavior we might desire in the workplace—an employee’s attendance and engagement with a training event. The illustration shows what a person might be thinking in each of the types of motivation.



The Importance of Understanding Differences in Motivation Types

There are at least two important points to grasping the usefulness of these categories. The first is that external rewards have been proven in multiple experiments to interfere with the higher levels of self-regulated, more autonomous motivation types. When people are offered external rewards, including apparently desirable things like higher pay, it can erode the sense of autonomy and take away inherent enjoyment in the behavior. (Please see the previous article for specific experimental results on this surprising phenomenon).

The second point is that we can adjust leadership styles, the work environment, and reward structures to affect the types of motivation experienced by ourselves and our team members. Often the difference between the types of motivation is a matter of perspective—opening one’s eyes to see how behavior aligns with values and principles. Successfully motivated people are able to make diverse connections between what they are doing and how it contributes to a larger picture. Researchers Deci, Olafson, and Ryan show that when individuals

  • understand the worth and purpose of their jobs
  • feel ownership and autonomy in carrying them out
  • receive clear feedback and supports

they are likely to become more autonomously motivated and reliably perform better, learn better, and be better adjusted. To improve your own motivation, or set the conditions for others to discover more autonomous levels of motivation, try the following specific, practical applications.

What Can We Do to Meet Psychological Needs and Develop More Autonomous Motivation?

  • Empathize. Imagine, with detail that includes emotion, other people’s perspective. Sincerely listen to and understand other’s ideas, seek their viewpoints, and virtually put yourself in their position. Don’t just listen to “facts,” but also to the feelings. This provides a positive atmosphere in which team members feel connected, competent, and safe to act autonomously.


  • Give Autonomy. Facilitate a proactive attitude by allowing group participation in decision making. Give autonomy in task, time, technique, and team selection.
    • Task — what things we work on
    • Time – when we do things and for how long
    • Technique – how we do things
    • Team – with whom we do things


  • Set Appropriate Goals

Goal-setting, when properly done, can be a powerful, positive motivator. However, like external rewards, goals set with the wrong principles or in the wrong circumstance can actually be detrimental. It helps to understand various ways of categorizing goals. The first is “extrinsic” versus “intrinsic” goals. Extrinsic goals are those related to wealth, appearance, or fame. Intrinsic goals are concerned with community, close relationships, personal growth. Because striving for intrinsic goals is more meaningful, it promotes more enthusiastic, energetic, and more sustainable behavior.

Another way to categorize goals is to distinguish between performance and learning goals. Performance goals involve hitting numbers, like sales targets, units produced, clients serviced, etc. If these goals diminish one’s perception of autonomy or erode a feeling of competency, they can be detrimental and anti-motivational in the workplace. Learning goals, on the other hand, focus on increasing autonomy and competency. Rather than pushing one to hit a sales or production target, a learning goal zeros in on becoming a master at the process. You can see how to effectively set goals at Positive Principles for Setting and Achieving Goals.

  • Provide Feedback that is informational, rather than controlling or demeaning.

Author Kim Cameron, in Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance, outlines a plan for feedback known as the “Personal Management Interview.” The program involves two steps:

  1. Role Negotiation Session
  2. Regular (Usually Monthly) Updates

In the role negotiation session, the supervisor and worker make a contract. Areas that are or are not negotiable are identified, with an explanation for their classification. Most importantly, the initial session clarifies expectation on the following areas:

  • Role performance
  • Areas of responsibility
  • Accountability and rewards
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Mission, goals, and values

The Regular sessions should last approximately 45-60 minutes, with the objectives to collaborate on improving performance and, most importantly, strengthening the positive nature of the work environment, relationships, communication, and meaning of work. Honoring the regular sessions, with a sincere and thoughtful effort from both sides, communicates that the organization is committed to meeting needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competency, while the employee is proactive in improving autonomous motivation. According to Cameron, sample agenda items can include:

  • Accountability for commitments made in past sessions
  • Leadership and organizational issues
  • Information sharing
  • Interpersonal issues
  • Obstacles to improvement
  • Training in necessary skills
  • Individual needs
  • Feedback on job performance and on personal capabilities
  • Resource needs
  • Targets and goals
  • Career development
  • Personal concerns or problems
  • Action items for next session

Figuring out the complexity of motivation is perhaps the biggest challenge of leadership. After all, Dwight Eisenhower succinctly defined leadership by saying that it is “The art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Decades of investigation into this topic have improved our understanding of why and how we do the things that we do. Grasping the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competency, along with their relationship to the spectrum of motivation types, provides a powerful tool to getting ourselves and others motivated in the right direction for the right purpose.


Motivation 101: Why Rewards Often Don’t Work, and Why Meeting 3 Critical Psychological Needs Does

In today’s world, much of the effort to motivate others is based on an outdated model of carrots and sticks. Extrinsic rewards often do very little to satisfy, and may even damage, our deeper psychological needs of Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competency. Dive in to understand our critical needs, why autonomy and meaning in work is so essential, and how extrinsic rewards can interfere with achieving competency.

How do we get ourselves going on a task that we don’t really feel like doing? How do we set the right environment so that others feel self-motivated to accomplish tasks in our organization? In my previous article on leadership styles, I showed that we can classify people on a matrix of motivation and ability. Probably the biggest leadership challenge would be dealing with the lower right corner– a low motivation, but highly experienced and knowledgeable, worker. How would we help workers in that situation move up the motivation scale toward star performer?


According to one highly respected theory of motivation, called self-determination theory, two concepts act on our organization’s environment and people to influence productivity and well-being: basic human psychological needs, and a spectrum of motivation types. These two factors interact with the structural environment and individual characteristics in an organization to determine quality and quantity of production, as well as the well-being and happiness of individuals. The environmental structure includes the policies and rules, the system of compensation, promotion, rewards and punishments, and the social atmosphere. Individuals differ in two main areas — their degree of self-regulation and their goals and desires. The individual differences in self-regulation are divided into people who tend to be 1) proactive, or autonomous; 2) controlled by external factors such as rewards to guide behavior; or 3) impersonal and reactive, believing that getting what they want is beyond their direct control.  Goals and desires can be divided into extrinsic and intrinsic, and mostly fit into seven categories of wealth, fame, attractive image (all extrinsic goals), personal development, meaningful relationships, community contributions, and physical fitness.


To get more innovative, higher quality, or more efficient production, and to get greater worker satisfaction, we can observe, understand, and positively influence others by:

  • Satisfying the basic psychological needs of Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competency.
  • Helping people move toward more self-regulated, autonomous motivation.

In this article, we’ll first explore the psychological needs of Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competency. In subsequent articles, we’ll cover the various types of motivation, and how we can positively influence the work environment, to set the right conditions for self-regulated, self-motivated workers.

Our 3 Basic Psychological Needs

Many studies show us that we are motivated, and happy, when we:

  1. Feel we have choices over our lives. (Known as Autonomy)
  2. Feel that we are connected with other people, that we can care about others and feel that others care about us, and that we are related to a higher purpose. (Known as Relatedness)
  3. Feel that we are effective and growing in our lives. (Known as Competency)


We can intuitively see our needs for these three things by observing little babies and children. Have you ever tried to feed a baby sitting in a high chair, squirming because he feels constrained and controlled, always trying to grab the spoon to feed himself? His impulse is to want to do it for himself. Watching toddlers play, one sees a remarkable fascination with learning to do things, increasing their competence. And when they do learn something new, there is a raw excitement to share that new competency with meaningful others—to show off to Mommy or Daddy. This feeling of pride and excitement is even more intense when they have learned to do something helpful to others, when they feel they have contributed to the family. These basic needs don’t change when we grow up, no matter what our culture. The following breaks down what we mean by each category of psychological need.


Autonomy means that we perceive that we have a choice, and are given a voice, in the organization. We need to feel that we are the source of our own actions, not being coerced by some force outside of our own will. Daniel Pink, in his highly-recommended work Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, points out that we have, or can give others, choices in at least these four areas:

  • Task — what things we work on
  • Time – when we do things and for how long
  • Technique – how we do things
  • Team – with whom we do things

Autonomy doesn’t mean acting independently with disregard for others, and so it is not equivalent to individual independence. We can, and often should, make choices that make us interdependent with others in our teams.

Humans need some measure of self-determination for our good health, even when we know that we are unable to completely control our environment or other people. This truth was shown in the extreme in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, where Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl discovered that the one thing we can always exercise autonomous control over is our attitude. Dr. Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and founder of a school of thought that promotes striving for meaning as the primary human motivator, remarked “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” So, even in the most dire of circumstances, humans can always find a measure of autonomy that provides basic motivation for action.



Our need for relatedness can be divided into two areas: Relationship to Others and Relationship to Meaning.

Relationship to Others

We have a basic need to be able to care about others, and feel that others care about us. We need to have a circle of trusted people in which we feel safe and can express and expect sincerity—no hidden motives or agendas, no strings attached. When we are confident in our circle of trust that fellow members aren’t going to betray us, that we don’t face internal threats, we can work together to concentrate our resources on defending against challenges and threats outside of the circle. (Author Simon Sinek addresses this topic in his work Leader Eat Last.) There is, in fact, a bio-chemical reason for our relationship need. As covered in my article about the chemistry of trust, our bodies produce hormones, oxytocin and serotonin, when we are in trusting relationships, and these contribute to a sense of well-being.

We can foster relationship to others in organizations by providing:

  • positive social experiences
  • appreciation
  • opportunities to have fun
  • recognition
  • thankfulness
  • pleasant physical gestures such as smiles, head nods, etc.
  • opportunities for others to exercise their strengths to contribute

Relationship to Meaning

“One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, positive psychologist and author


Common sense and research supports that people need meaning for their well-being and productivity. Psychologist, author and noted speaker Dr. Dan Ariely has demonstrated the importance of meaning via some interesting experiments. In the first, he offered money, starting at $3, for a volunteer to build a Lego figure called a “Bionicle.” (Please see the example of a Bionicle below). If the volunteer agreed, when they finished assembling the figure, it was put on the floor under the table where the experiment was being run. Then the volunteer was continuously offered 30 cents less for each subsequent Bionicle built, each one being kept in the same place after assembly. This continued until the monetary reward became so low that the volunteer declined to make any more. Even though the volunteers understood that the completed Bionicles would be disassembled for the next person, they had some meaning imparted to their work because the figures were kept intact, in front of them, as if the completed figure had some value.

In the second phase of the experiment, the money offered was the same for each piece, but after the first one was completed, while the volunteer was assembling the next Bionicle, the experimenter took apart the previously assembled one in front of the volunteer. This served to deprive the work of any meaning.

1 Bionic Experiment

The results of this experiment indicate a significant decrease in production motivation when work seems to have no meaning. The first group of volunteers made an average of 11 figures before stopping, while the second group made only 7. This low number held true even for people who admitted that they normally enjoyed putting together Lego figures. As Dr. Ariely says, “…with this manipulation of breaking things in front of people’s eyes, we basically crushed any joy that they could get out of this activity.”

2 Bionic Experiment

In another set of experiments, Dr. Ariely’s team presented volunteers with a sheet of random letters, and offered a certain amount of money to mark pairs of identical letters that appeared side-by-side on the list. (Please see the illustration below). The volunteers were split into three groups. In the first, after marking a sheet, the subjects would put their name on the sheet, hand it to the experimenter, who would study it briefly, say a reassuring “Uh-huh,” and then place it on a pile of sheets on the table. In the second set, the volunteers did not write their names on the sheet, handing it to the experimenter, who did not scan the sheet at all, but immediately put it down into the pile. The third group, upon handing the finished sheet to the experimenter, watched as it was put directly into a paper shredding machine without being examined.

3 Random Letter Match

The interesting result of this experiment is not so much the large difference in motivation to continue working between an acknowledged effort and a shredded effort. It turns out that having one’s work ignored was nearly equivalent to having it shredded in front of their face. The positive takeaway, though, is that even a small amount of acknowledging one’s effort gives meaning to the work, and dramatically improves performance.

4 Random Letter Match

You can watch Dr. Ariely explain these two experiments, as well as others related to revelations about motivation, in the following TED talk:

In a previous article about writing a personal purpose statement, I discussed the three basic ways people see work: as a job, a career, or a calling. Those viewing work as simply a job are focused on the material benefit. People seeing work as a career tend to have lower quality motivations that are external to their own will, such as seeking self-esteem and social standing. People who work persistently to align their work with their natural interests and meaning internalize their motivation, and come to view their work as a calling. Research has shown that people who find meaning, challenge, and enjoyment in their work are much more engaged—that is to say, they are more emotionally and mindfully committed to contributing to the organization and its goals. Having a strong sense of meaning in our work helps us to see it as a calling, making us more satisfied and motivated.

Attitudes Toward Work

What does it actually mean to have meaning? Researchers have found that work is more meaningful when it:

  • positively and significantly impacts the well-being of others
  • aligns with important virtues or personal values
  • has a long-term positive impact
  • builds positive relationships and community


The final piece of the psychological-needs puzzle is our drive for demonstrating competence to ourselves and to others. One of the founders of Self-Determination Theory, Edward L. Deci, asserts that human beings have an “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn.” We don’t have to get to perfection, but it is important for our well-being to feel that we are growing over time, consistently improving our skills. Again, body chemistry plays a part here. The positive effects of Serotonin kick in when we have a sense of pride and accomplishment. When we hit goals that we’ve set to improve our performance and skills, we get shots of Dopamine, which is a pleasure-creating hormone.

The drive for competence is internal and can also be self-sustaining, even without external rewards. In fact, there is ample evidence that offering external rewards in many cases has a negative impact on creativity and performance. Author Dan Pink, in one of 10 most-watched TED talks of all time, describes a curious experiment result that throws a revolutionary light on competence, rewards, and motivation. In this experiment, volunteers were asked to solve a problem: Given a candle, a box of thumb-tacks, and a book of matches sitting on a table next to a wall, they had to attach the candle to the wall without letting the wax drip onto the table when lit. (Please see the illustration below).

The volunteers were divided into two groups. Individuals in the first group were simply told that they would be timed as they found the solution in order to establish a baseline of how long the problem would take to solve. The second group members were offered financial incentives. Those in the top 25% fastest times for solution were to receive $5, and the one with the top time of the day scored $20.

1 Candle Problem

Contrary to all expectations, those in the group incentivized with cash rewards performed substantially worse! They took an average of 3.5 minutes longer to solve this problem. The problem requires “thinking outside of the box” …in this case, literally. The problem solver must see the box, that at first simply looks like a container for the tacks, as a part of the solution. The easiest answer is to tack the box to the wall and then fix the candle inside the box. Promising the reward interfered with the volunteers’ abilities to create new solutions. Rewards tend to narrow one’s focus, which may be suitable for purely mechanical tasks. But scientists have conducted many similar trials since this experiment was conducted several decades ago, measuring the effect of external rewards on performance, or competency. The results have consistently shown that for any task that requires even the most rudimentary of cognitive skills, larger rewards lead to lower competence and performance. The drive for competence is a naturally occurring need, and best cultivated internally to provide the best quality motivation.

2 Candle Problem.jpg

You can see Dan Pink’s popular TED talk here:


In today’s world, much of the practice of trying to motivate workers is based on an outdated model of carrots and sticks, using external rewards to try to improve performance and satisfy needs. But external rewards, after having enough to satisfy basic physical needs, do very little to satisfy, and may even damage, our deeper psychological needs of Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competency. We need to feel that we have choices in our lives, to feel related to others in a circle of trust and related to a greater purpose, and feel that we are improving our competencies from day to day. To move people from “apathetic and unmotivated” to “enthusiastically engaged,” we should always keep in the important role of Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competency. In our next leadership installment, we’ll look at Types of Motivation, and practical things we can do to help ourselves and others meet the basic psychological needs, and develop more autonomous, effective motivation. Stay tuned!


Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.


Are You Ready to Give Up Control?

Empowering employees has been a western world trend for decades, making businesses more efficient by pushing decisions down to where the expertise and information are, and developing initiative, skills, and morale in junior leaders. But are you willing to take the heat if your direct reports make mistakes? Follow these guidelines for successful implementation of the delegative style of leadership.

Imagine you are a mid-level manager in a large high-tech corporation, which runs many facilities around the globe. You’re not sure whether your boss has great faith in you, or just has some grudge against you, because she has assigned you to take charge of one of the poorest performing facilities. They have had several on-site accidents, poor quality control, and lack of productivity in developing products and getting them to market. The company has a first-rate recruitment operation, attracting many high-potential candidates, but the turnover rate at this place is the worst in the company, with many employees staying on for only a few months before quitting. Morale seems abysmal. What would be your first actions? How would you approach this problem and try to turn things around? Do you think this is a situation that calls for a firm hand, in a more authoritative style of leadership? With retention and morale so low, could you trust the workers with a more delegative style of leadership?

To formulate a plan for this leadership challenge, we should consider various leadership styles available to us. In a previous article, I discussed a spectrum of leadership styles, ranging from authoritative to delegative, based on the amount of control retained by leaders and independence given to followers. When we overlay that spectrum on a matrix of worker motivation and capabilities, we can see how circumstance might call for exerting more or less control as a leader. For example, we examined several cases of crisis situations appropriate for a more directive, authoritative style in the last article, “Are You Prepared to Lead in a Crisis?”


Releasing Control—A Submariner’s Example

When is it time to release control as a leader and delegate authority and responsibility to junior workers? One former US Navy submarine commander, Captain L. David Marquet, faced a situation similar to the scenario above, and advocates a high-delegation style of leadership, which he labels “Intent-Based Leadership”. His excellent leadership book, Turn the Ship Around!, tells his story of being selected to take charge of one of the submarine fleet’s poorest performing vessels.


The nuclear-powered submarine Santa Fe had consistently low inspection scores and a terrible reenlistment rate of its sailors, reflecting poor morale. When Captain Marquet took command of the Santa Fe, he had been given little time to prepare for the challenge, as the Navy originally had him in a pipeline to take command of another vessel, the Olympia. Faced with an overwhelmingly complex ship and a crew that had become defeatist, he brainstormed with his new leadership team on how to improve the situation. You can hear him tell the story in the video below.

As we saw in the video, Captain Marquet’s leadership team suggested the solution that he, as the commander, “Shut Up.” In other words, they were asking him to delegate more authority and responsibility to the crew members, rather than come onboard as a raging enforcer of discipline. There’s a sarcastic saying throughout the US military, “The beatings will continue until morale improves,” that resonates with soldiers precisely because it touches on the truth. Captain Marquet knew he could not force motivation and morale on his people—it would take a more sophisticated, but risky, approach.


The Captain stopped giving orders, and replaced it with the expectation that his sailors should take the initiative and communicate their intent to act. Instead of barking commands that left no room for independent thinking of subordinates, he established a working environment in which the workers, knowing the intent of the organization and the commander, could respond with their own initiative to accomplish that intent. Captain Marquet emphasizes how the change from asking permission to declaring intent flipped the psychological ownership of action, so that sailors took a more active part in thinking about and executing work. If workers are always coming to the boss and asking, “What should I do next?” the boss will always be overwhelmed and the followers will never develop. In an ideal world of delegation, a leader avoids being “the answer person” and grows young leaders in every junior worker.


But what does it take to reach that ideal work culture—what are the conditions for delegative leadership? Captain Marquet highlights two pillars—competency and organizational clarity—that must be in place before handing over control.


Leaders must set their followers up for success before they start handing off responsibilities for tasks. Giving a person a task to perform when they don’t yet have the tools needed to accomplish the task can have long-term and devastating consequences for the confidence and potential of that person. Leaders need to accurately evaluate the capability levels of each individual. A leader’s evaluation of competency takes judgment–competency is situationally-dependent, for one may be competent in one area, or at one period of time, but not competent in other situations. Competency is also multi-faceted. Author Stephen M. R. Covey, in his book The Speed of Trust, breaks competency (he uses the term capability) into five components: Talent, Attitude, Skills, Knowledge, and Style (TASKS). Talents are the natural strengths of a person, and good leaders recognize and build on those natural talents when they delegate. In 2013, Deloitte discovered that the majority (42%) of survey respondents looking for another job didn’t think their employers were making good use of their talents. Leaders also need to promote positive attitudes that willingly accept responsibility for acting independently. A leader’s responsibility, before delegating, includes providing and evaluating the relevant skills training and knowledge education for specific tasks. In the fast-changing pace of today’s world, it’s also important to ensure that the skills and knowledge stay relevant to the times. As Covey points out, when people don’t continuously improve their skills and knowledge, their “fifteen years of experience” in a company may only be one year repeated fifteen times! Finally, the competency required for delegation requires that workers learn the ability to relate to others in styles fitting to the task. Highly talented and skilled workers with can-do attitudes, but who can’t relate well to others, may not be ready for delegation.

Two proven methods for increasing competency are establishing mentoring and coaching programs and regularly conducting after action reviews. Many companies simply go through the motions on these two methods, not fully devoting the time and resources required to reach the depth which yield the most results. Effective mentoring and coaching results from building trust relationships over time, and takes personal investment by the mentor and the learner. After action reviews—taking the time to capture lessons learned from each operation—are also often brushed over. In the rush of events, we tend to hurry from one project to the next without taking the time to reflect on how we might grow from our experiences. If we want our team to be fully prepared to take on delegated duties, however, we can count on a positive return on investments in mentoring, coaching, and capturing lessons learned.


Organizational Clarity –The Leader’s Intent

The idea of a communicating intent as Captain Marquet implemented on his submarine is not new in the military. Many people have a wrong impression of military leadership, envisioning red-faced drill sergeants shouting orders to unhesitant, obedient troops—but that concept is as outdated as 19th Century Napoleonic warfare, when rows of soldiers were required to maintain rigid formations. The environment and circumstances faced by today’s military leaders, just like their business counterparts, are dynamic and complex, and leadership styles changed accordingly.  Successful military leaders rely on clearly communicating intent to their highly-trained troops, so that soldiers can creatively adapt their knowledge to specific situations to accomplish intended objectives. The highest level of communicating objectives is known as “Commander’s Intent.” A US Army document defines commander’s intent as a description of the desired end state of an action.

“It is a concise statement of the purpose of the operation and must be understood two levels below the level of the issuing commander. It must clearly state the purpose of the mission. It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end.”

In other words, the commander’s intent succinctly tells everyone what success looks like, and this principle easily applies beyond the military. Leaders provide the organizational clarity needed for successful delegation by articulating their Leader’s Intent. This embodies the recently popular notion of providing the “why” of what an organization does. We can make a simple leader’s intent statement by completing the following: “I desire our team to ..….. in order to ……….” The first part of the statement tells people what you want to have done (but not how), and the second gives the reason behind why you want that done.


Leaders should broadcast their intent statements to followers; but simply stating the intent is not sufficient for success. Leaders must also be visible and open with their team, developing relationships that show caring and involvement. If we want to have that ideal situation that Captain Marquet describes, with an entire crew of thinking, active, passionate, proactive people, we need to share our values and why we hold those values. We perform an effective mentoring function when we explain our rationale for our decision making to our team, helping them to understand decisions and develop their own capabilities. At the same time, we cannot always be in broadcast mode; we must be receptive to feedback. Leaving space for dialogue with followers is not a sign of weakness… it’s an opportunity for growth. Finally, in the independence that we give in delegating, we still need to establish boundaries. It’s empowering to employees to make their own decisions, developing their own paths to success, based on following our intentions, but they still need to know the limits of what we can accept. Following these guidelines in establishing intent makes the organization’s goals clear, setting up the conditions for workers to accept delegated tasks and create their own solutions.

When making decisions on delegating leadership responsibilities, aside from competency and organizational clarity, we should also evaluate time constraints, team formation ability, and cultural factors. Time crisis situations don’t eliminate the need for delegation, but they do require more active direction from a central source. In a crisis, the organization usually can’t afford the additional time for followers to explore their own paths, and the team needs to be more focused. The cohesiveness of team members also affects the potential effectiveness of delegating leadership. Handing down responsibilities to subordinates who face a hostile colleague environment may put them in an uncomfortable, and unwinnable, situation.

The idea of empowering workers has been trendy in western countries for many decades already; however, cultural differences in other regions require additional consideration before delegating leadership. One aspect of culture that experts use to describe differences is called “Power Distance.” Power distance is defined by social psychologist Geert Hofstede as “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.” High power distance cultures accept inequalities, feel comfortable with strictly hierarchical organizations, and tend to respect and trust leadership. An ideal leader in a high power distance culture is a “benevolent autocrat,” and challenges to leadership are frowned upon. In exchange for loyalty, respect, and acceptance of the power inequalities, the superior is expected to provide protection and benevolence. Asian countries in particular tend to be high power distance. Delegating leadership duties in a high power distance culture will require more understanding and coaching to overcome cultural challenges. Artist Yang Liu perfectly illustrates the differences in power distance in the following picture:

Yang Liu’s art illustrates how western cultures view power distance differently than many Asian cultures. Western view is the blue background, Asian view the red. Source: Yang Liu: East meets West

Risks and Rewards of Delegative Leadership

What are the risks and rewards involved in delegating leadership authority and responsibility? First, we can never fully divest our authority and responsibility. As former US President Harry Truman famously displayed on his desk, “The Buck Stops Here.” We risk having to take responsibility for the failure of our team, even if we aren’t directly at fault. This is why Captain Marquet’s decision to “never give another order” was so risky; if one of his sailors screwed up, he as the captain would have been the one to answer for the mistake. A second risk is a danger to the followers more than the leader—destroying self-confidence. If we hand over responsibility to subordinates without setting them up for success—without making our expectations and intent exceptionally clear and without ensuring they have the competency to succeed—and if they fail, they may lose confidence to accept responsibility in the future. Without giving the proper support, encouragement, and caring oversight, our followers can suffer emotional damage that hinders their personal development.

In many cases, though, the rewards will far outweigh risks. First of all, distributing leadership power to the lowest level possible develops everyone’s leadership potential. Most people respond to challenges and expectations—if we don’t expect and challenge people to take charge and think independently about improving personal and company performance, they will stagnate, or become frustrated. Delegating leadership also builds teamwork, as junior leaders form teams and interact with one another in creating solutions to problems. Additionally, people will feel more engaged and accept ownership in the process when they are the ones expected to answer the question, “What do I do next?” Finally, under the right conditions, delegative leadership can be much more efficient and effective, because it moves the authority closer to the technical expertise and information. Although we start out as experts in our field, when we climb the leadership ladder, we lose the close contact with operations and information. With power distributed closer to the operations, as long as everyone is headed in the same direction, decisions can be made more quickly and with more accurate, up-to-date information.


Captain Marquet’s story of turning a dysfunctional nuclear submarine crew into a model of proactive, multi-tiered leaders is compelling. His leadership completely reversed the problems of retention, and the effect of his reforms was sustainable. The submarine continued to perform excellently and win awards long after his departure as Captain. Probably most telling is his legacy of leadership. His two executive officers and three department heads went on to command their own submarines, and the promotion rate of leaders under his command far exceeded Navy averages. The measure of great leaders lies not in just their accomplishments, but in the leaders that they develop as their legacy. The delegative leadership style is perhaps the best method for leadership development, but takes much more finesse than just throwing tasks left and right to lighten the load at the top. Before trying to delegate leadership, first follow these guidelines to build your legacy of leaders:

Guidelines for Successful Delegative Leadership

Develop Competency

  • Talent          – Match natural talents and inclinations to task
  • Attitude       – Encourage a proactive attitude
  • Skills            – Provide relevant skills training
  • Knowledge – Provide relevant education opportunities
  • Styles           – Develop social skills capable of forming and leading teams
  • Mentor and Coach
  • Conduct After Action Reviews
  • Account for cultural differences

Provide Organizational Clarity

  • Clearly communicate leader’s intent
  • Be visible and open
  • Share your values and why you hold them
  • Explain your decision making rationales
  • Receive feedback
  • Establish boundaries


Analyze your own organization. Are the conditions in place for implementing the delegative “leadership by intent” as practiced by Captain Marquet? What is the current level of competency in technical capabilities and leadership-team building skills? What actions can the organization take to improve competency? Are the leadership and organizational expectations and intentions clearly communicated? What specific tasks or responsibilities can be handed down to lower levels of leadership?


Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

Are You Prepared to Lead in a Crisis?

When the world is falling apart around you, do you have the leadership tools and skills to keep it together? These principles of leadership in a crisis situation will help you navigate from crisis preparation to post-crisis recovery.

In the near-windless, quiet evening of April 2010, on an oil drilling platform floating off the shore of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, the calmness was shattered by the deafening roar of drilling fluids, oil and gas spewing out at hundreds of miles per hour from the top of the 25-story derrick, coating the deck and its workers with a slick sludge. For somewhere between six and nine minutes, the crew struggled unsuccessfully to contain the jet stream of flammable liquid, while chaos began to build in the command and control nerve center of the semi-submersible ship—the bridge. Multiple warning lights and alarms, indicating the presence of combustible gas, began to light up control panels in the bridge, blaring a cacophony that added to the chaos. In the confusion, no one sounded a general alarm to alert the rest of the 126 people on board who were not yet aware of impending disaster. Nor did anyone in the bridge take measures to shut down potential sources of ignition for the highly combustible gas. As the gas entered the intake to one of the ship’s engines, it caused the electrical generator to spin out of control, brightening and bursting lights and computer terminals, just before igniting the fine mist of methane causing a tremendous explosion, destroying a significant part of the ship, instantly killing several of the crew, and starting a conflagration that endangered all those remaining. By this time, perhaps the only action that could have contained the disaster and saved the structure was to disconnect the ship from the 1500-meter pipe leading to the ocean floor and the source of fuel for the fire…but the leadership situation in the bridge significantly delayed the decision to attempt that drastic measure. You can see a re-creation of the events in the following video.

What happened in the ensuing, panicked time after the explosion is not completely clear. Because of the nature of the trauma, and the fact that all the involved parties “lawyered up” after the incident, the actual scene in the bridge has several versions. The electronics technician, Mike Williams, was one eyewitness present on the bridge observing much of the leader response to the crisis. In an interview with the US TV program 60 Minutes, he gives the following account (also available in the edited video clip above):

Mike: “I made my way to the bridge, and there’s roughly 18 or 20 people on the bridge and it’s very chaotic… It’s a lot of screaming, a lot of yelling. A lot of radio traffic.”

Interviewer: “What are you hearing on the bridge?”

Mike: “I’m hearing alarms. I’m hearing radio chatter. ‘Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! We’ve lost propulsion, we’ve lost power, we have a fire, Mayday!’

All these sorts of things are being said…And in the middle of that, I remember… ‘We got man overboard! Man overboard! On the starboard forward deck.’

So I report to the captain, ‘There’s been a massive explosion. At a very minimum number 3 engine has exploded, and completely took off the back of the rig.’

And I remember that blank look he gave me of disbelief. He didn’t believe what I was telling him.

And I reemphasized it again. I said, ‘Look, we are in bad trouble. The ECR (Engine Control Room) …it’s gone. The consoles and the equipment…it’s all missing. Blown off the back of the rig, wherever it went, it’s gone. And the engines have exploded. At least one engine has exploded.’

At that point I was actually told to shut up and calm down.

Someone, somewhere, was screaming, ‘We need to disconnect from the well! We need to disconnect from the well!’

The Subsea Supervisor for the night shift was at the panel, and he refused to disconnect from the well without authorization from the OIM (Offshore Installation Manager) and the BP company man.

The OIM had, at that moment, just made it to the bridge, and he was coughing and vomiting…He was in pretty bad shape. The BP company man was up there already. And they started shaking Mr. Jimmy [the OIM] there,

‘Mr. Jimmy, we gotta disconnect!’

And he was finally able to get the words out, ‘Yes! Disconnect!’ in between the choking and all that.

So he gives the order to disconnect from the well. He gives the order, so now we’ve got half the order that we need. But people are screaming, ‘Chris! Disconnect! Disconnect!’

And he said ‘I will not disconnect without the authorization of the BP company man.’ He’d only had half of the authorization.

The BP company man proceeds to the panel. And I’m actually sitting 5 feet from the panel. They open the panel. He’s got his fingers on the buttons. And the company man is studying the panel for what seems like minutes.

And finally he gives the decision, ‘Yes, disconnect.’

And they press the button. The inferno doesn’t go away. It’s actually still growing. It’s now engulfed the entire derrick. You cannot see any part of the derrick any longer. It’s completely in flames.”

Left without any options, the OIM finally gave the order to abandon ship (although some crew members had already begun jumping into the dark waters). As one rig worker later told the Wall Street Journal, “The scene was very chaotic. People were in a state of panic . . . There was no chain of command, nobody in charge.”  Regrettably, eleven crewmembers, along with the 560 million dollar Deepwater Horizon, a latest-generation, technological marvel, would burn and perish beneath the Gulf waters.


Crisis Situation Two: Qantas Flight 32

Almost seven months later, halfway around the world in Singapore, a similar scene of pandemonium would occur at 2,255 meters in the air, with 469 souls aboard the world’s largest, and one of the most sophisticated, airplanes ever built, but with very different results. Just having departed Singapore’s Changi Airport, bound for Sydney, pilot Richard de Crespigny and his crew of four other pilots hear two large BOOMs, followed by warning lights, siren alarms, and aircraft shaking. Engine number two indicates a fire, while the other engine instruments are giving either abnormal or no readings. System after system on the complex, highly computerized aircraft begins to give indications of failure. The auto-thrust doesn’t work. The fire suppression system for the number two engine fails to indicate that it activated. The computer screen displays dozens of malfunctions. Multiple alarms distract the crew’s concentration. “I had my thumb up most of the time just cancelling the bells,” says First Officer Matt Hicks. “You can’t think with a bell ringing on top of your head.” The Second Officer goes to the cabin to visually check the aircraft, and observes a huge gash, big enough to fit a person through, in the left wing, and fuel or hydraulic fluid spewing out the back of the wing.

The damaged wing of the Airbus 380, Qantas Flight 32. Source
The crew would later find out that an oil leak into the number two engine had started a fire that caused a very large spinning metal disk to disintegrate and fling outward at nearly the speed of sound, punching holes in the wing and cutting through critical hydraulic, electrical, and air lines. In this chaotic environment, which was not unlike the bridge on the Deepwater Horizon, the leadership response of Captain de Crespigny was much different than on the oil rig. The crew had years of training in not only the technical aspects of aviation, with constant practice of “what if” situations, but also in the human side of Crew Resource Management (CRM). Leading his team with respectful, cool-headed authority, de Crespigny worked with them to identify the root cause of the problem, establish their objective and course of action, communicate that action with each other, and delegate responsibilities. They quickly dealt with each system problem step-by-step, solving challenges such as ensuring the gear go down properly without hydraulic pressure, and calculating fuel imbalances and weight restrictions for landing. You can see an edited dramatization of the incident here:

In order to deal with the complexity threatening to overwhelm his ability to maneuver the plane to the ground safely, the pilot guided the whole process, suggesting to the crew to focus on those things that were right with the aircraft, rather than focusing on the myriad of malfunctions. This helped pull the crew together and created some order out of the chaos. He skillfully landed the super jumbo jet, 50 tons over its recommended landing weight, faster than normal due to structural damage, and without normal anti-skid function, to stop within 100 meters of the end of the 4,000-meter runway. On the ground, the incident and need for authoritative leadership was not yet over. The brakes were white hot, fuel streaming from the damaged wing, and the number one engine on that side would not shut off, setting up an extremely flammable situation. Captain de Crespigny led the crew through a discussion of an evacuation order, taking all inputs. He decided that keeping the passengers on board until the situation was under control was the safest action. Even though it would be two hours on the ground before the last passenger departed the plane, the exemplary poise of Captain de Crespigny and crew ensured a successful end to this near disaster.

The catastrophic disintegration of a metal disk destroyed the number two engine and caused serious collateral damage. Source

What is Crisis Leadership?

In my last article, I discussed a spectrum of leadership styles, from authoritative to delegative. Authoritative leadership is on the end of the spectrum in which the leader maintains control, with less independence of the followers. It requires exceptionally competent leaders, and is appropriate in situations that require extreme procedural discipline with little need for innovation or creativity. It is probably most appropriate in emergency situations, or crises, as described above. Below, we’ll discuss leadership in crisis, which we divide into three phases: pre-crisis, crisis response, and post-crisis. Five principles of leadership in crisis can help us successfully prepare for and control our response to the chaos of crisis and crisis recovery.

What kind of situations call for this authoritative leadership? Crises are unpredictable, high-impact events. Their causes and consequences can be ambiguous, chaotic, and rapidly changing. A crisis event is one that threatens one or more of these areas: lives, the environment, the organization’s mission or existence, stakeholders. The combination of uncertainty and serious impact call for a firm leader who asserts authority. Examples of crises can include

  • natural disasters
  • violence in a store or facility
  • accidents
  • misdeeds or fraud in the company
  • malicious rumors or malevolent social media
  • disgruntled customers
  • financial problems
  • hostile takeovers

Pre-crisis Phase

Proper crisis response starts with prior planning and proactive anticipation. This is probably the single most important factor in the different outcomes between the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the Qantas Flight 32 incident. The Chief Counsel’s Report on the Macondo Deepwater Horizon Accident highlighted the lack of leadership preparation on the rig. They noted that BP “expects that operating leaders create and support clear delegation and accountability. Often this did not happen at Macondo. The Chief Counsel’s team observed conflict between managers and confusion about who was accountable for critical decisions.  The team responsible for key decisions at Macondo did not always appear to be acting with a consistent and shared purpose.” Although the Deepwater Horizon crew had regularly practiced routine emergency fire response or evacuation drills, no one had ever thought “outside of the box” to anticipate such a major disaster and proper response.

The Report to the President, like the Chief Counsel’s report, identified leadership failures in the Macondo Deepwater Horizon disaster.
On the other hand, Qantas Airlines and their crews put an extremely high emphasis on crisis preparation, even above the rigorous standards of the airline industry. The company evaluated pilot flying skills more often than required, and instilled a culture of operational discipline, expertise, and anticipation of emergency situations. Captain de Crespigny regularly drilled crew members assigned to fly with him, picking complex and sometimes unexpected emergency situations to discuss and anticipate reactions.

Aviators use a technique known as “chair flying,” which comes from the practice of sitting in a chair and going through all phases of a flight in one’s mind. From the time I was in pilot training, I would sit with a poster of the T-37 aircraft instrument panel taped on the wall, physically practicing my eye and hand movements for each maneuver that I would have to perform, as well as for emergency procedures. This technique is much like the visualization techniques used by top athletes, but with the added element of anticipating crisis situations.

Crisis Response Phase

When a crisis hits, adherence to a list of five principles can simplify and standardize our response:

5 Principles

            1. Determine the Root Cause

            2. Establish the Objective

            3. Communicate

            4. Delegate

            5. Oversee and Lead

Determine the Root of the Crisis

  • Gather Your Team (When Possible) and Agree on Root Causes
    • Incidents are often the end result of a chain of events. Try to discover and solve the earliest link in that chain.
  • Beware! Symptoms are not Causes!
    • Attempting to find short-term fixes that address the symptoms only ensures long-term failure.

Establish the Objective—Now!

  • Establish the objective and required actions quickly, before the situation overwhelms the team.
  • You can’t lead until you know what needs to be done and how you’re going to do it.
  • Balance need for information with making sound and timely decisions. You may never have 100% of the information.

Communicate What You Want Done

  • The way you communicate will show confidence in yourself and confidence in the people you are leading.
  • Yelling or panicking adds stress and shows you are not in control of either your own emotions or the crisis.
  • Clear, short and easy to understand orders are best in stressful situations.


  • No single leader can keep up with a rapidly changing, chaotic event.
  • Identify the best person to handle each specific task.
  • As the threat grows, the need for the leader to focus on the big picture grows as well.

Oversee Operations and Lead by Example

  • In a crisis, everyone looks to the leader for direction, inspiration, and motivation.
  • Effective leaders keep the team focused on the task.
  • Update information. Keep the Big Picture.
  • How the leader acts determines how the team deals with the crisis. Crisis is the time a leader must be assertive and in control.

Post-crisis Phase

In today’s digitally-connected world, the post-crisis phase can start almost simultaneously with the crisis. The post-crisis phase deals with the aftermath of a crisis– repairing any damages, restoring relationships, communicating with all stakeholders, and analyzing the crisis for lessons learned and improvements. Whereas the frontline leaders in an organization, at the operational level, will normally deal with crisis response, the post-crisis phase will probably involve the top-level leadership. We can adapt the Five Principles above, along with some other considerations, for dealing with the post-crisis environment.

The leadership at Qantas only knew that their Airbus 380 was having a problem when they started getting calls about their stock price diving. Pieces of the engine cover of the damaged engine had fallen in a populated area of Indonesia. One piece even fell through a school roof, barely missing a young child. Twitter was lighting up with pictures of airplane parts, identifiable as Qantas, well before the plane had even landed, leading to a false Reuters news report that the Airbus had crashed.

Before the damaged plane had even landed, photographs of parts identifiable as Qantas began appearing on social media.
QF32 debris

Based on the tweeted pictures of airplane parts, CNBC, Reuters, and other news sources began spreading false information before Qantas was able to start leading the crisis response message.
Clearly, Qantas leadership needed to take control of the situation. Reflecting the Five Principles, the CEO, Alan Joyce, quickly found the root of the crisis through gathering reliable data. He established the company’s objective, based upon the company’s culture of safety emphasis, to provide full disclosure and provide for the safety of customers by grounding the Airbus 380 fleet. Before Captain de Cresigny was out of the terminal area after the incident, he saw his CEO communicating on CNN the objective to the public. After some initial confusion, all Qantas departments were aligned with the message, and performed their delegated duties, while the CEO continued to inspire with active involvement and concern for the passengers and future customers.

The Qantas post-crisis leadership differs sharply from the BP reaction to their crisis. BP CEO Tony Hayward admitted in an interview on BBC 2’s Money Programme that the contingency plans had been inadequate, that they had not been prepared for the disaster, and that the company had simply been making up their response from day to day. They immediately went into defensive mode, grossly underestimating the damage and leakage, apparently withholding information, and pointing the blame at other parties, including the rig operator Transocean, whose 11 men were the ones who perished in the flames. Most importantly, Mr. Hayward was slow to express compassion and issue an apology, and when he did, it came off as insincere. He made insensitive remarks, such as downplaying the size of the leak as tiny compared to the vast size of the ocean. He infamously snapped at a reporter, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

Hatred for BP and Hayward soared while the stock price plummeted. One parody account on Twitter, @BPGlobalPR, attracted at least ten times more followers than BP’s official account, starting the sarcastic hashtags #bpcares and #IwantmyBPtshirt with damaging messages such as the following:




The contrast in responses between Qantas and BP demonstrate that strong leadership is required to get through the post-crisis phase. Besides following the Five Principles, leaders need to direct a critical and honest analysis after an event in order to capture lessons learned. Many lessons learned regarding the technical problems discovered in the oil spill and aircraft recovery benefitted their respective industries. Regarding lessons learned for post-crisis communication, responses to the Deepwater Horizon disaster or Qantas incident demonstrated a simple set of principles:

  • Be quick
  • Be accurate
  • Be consistent

Qantas hero pilot Richard de Crespigny found the following lessons for dealing immediately with the post-crisis situation:

  • contact the media
  • establish yourself as the trusted source
  • define the story
  • anticipate
  • consider providing full and open disclosure
  • shut down false leads, unhelpful rumors and speculative theories.

Recent news has demonstrated that an operational crisis is often just the beginning of crisis for corporate leadership. United CEO’s initial responses to a passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight attracted derisive comments across social media. His use of just one phrase, “re-accommodate these customers” sparked an inferno of social media responses. He may have failed to understand the root cause of his problem, and certainly established an objective that appeared to lack compassion or sensitivity to the situation.

Several social media users posted the shocking scenes of a passenger being dragged off an over-booked flight, which immediately went viral and created a crisis situation for United Airlines.
United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz’s response to the social media typhoon came off as lacking compassion and understanding.
On the other hand, Malaysian-based AirAsia suffered a dreadful crisis when flight QZ8501 disappeared over Indonesia, with public memories still fresh with two ill-fated Malaysian Air flights. As bad as these incidents were, the post-crises response of the CEO projected strong leadership, acceptance of responsibility, and proper response.

The business world applauded AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes for his ownership of responsibility and demonstration of compassion. Source
Crisis leadership calls for an authoritative, but not dictatorial, style of leadership. Authoritative leadership provides clear and consistent direction from one source, while still delegating duties once the objective is established. A word of caution: authoritative leadership can be extremely vulnerable to human error. It can consume large amounts of time and energy. And using it outside of crisis situations could stifle worker initiative and development. Thus, it is critical while executing the Five Principles to take inputs from the team and adapt to the situation. In the end, however, crisis leadership demands decisiveness, good judgment, and discipline, which comes through preparing ourselves and adhering to the Five Principles.


Brainstorm potential crises situations. How would you apply the 5 principles to the crisis response phase? How would you handle the post-crisis phase?

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

What is the Best Leadership Style? It Depends!

Leadership styles are like a set of tools, designed for a specific set of circumstances. Of the myriads of tools available, here are three of the most important leadership styles, with some practical considerations on the appropriate situation for each style.

Is any particular style of leadership superior to others? If you Google “Leadership Styles,” you’ll get about 20,200,000 results…Those are a lot of styles from which to choose! Leadership style means the behaviors and attitudes that leaders choose to carry out their leader functions, such as providing direction, follower development, motivation, or discipline. Social scientists, psychologists, and other academic researchers have proposed numerous theories and produced countless studies of leadership styles over the years, creating a complex picture. In order to simplify the situation and provide some practical points on adapting an appropriate leadership style, I will briefly discuss three of the most significant styles, and show how various circumstances might call for different styles.

A Spectrum of Control

A simple way to look at leadership styles is to measure how much independent control is being given to followers. Although the spectrum might include numerous labels along the way from total control to no control, examining three styles—Authoritative, Participative, Delegative– along the continuum is most helpful. Let’s first look at the definition of each of these styles.


Authoritative: Decision-making power centralized in the supervisor. She or he gives the commands and may closely monitor or even direct during the operation/task. Authoritative leadership style is not the same as being a ‘dictator,’ as the leader takes inputs and responds to followers.

Participative: The “democratic” form of leadership, where everyone gets a vote. The leader brings a work team together, gets everyone’s inputs and opinions, and then picks a course of action by consensus.

Delegative: The leader distributes tasks to followers, giving them the authority and responsibility for completing tasks. This does not relieve the leader, however, of her or his responsibility, nor diminish the leader’s ultimate authority.

 Situational Leadership – People, Time, Task

None of these styles is superior to another—selecting an appropriate style depends on conditions. Three of the most important conditions that determine the correct leadership style are

  • The nature of the people (both leader and followers).
  • The time requirements of a situation.
  • The nature of the task, such as structured or unstructured, requiring precise repetition or innovation, simple or complex.

One way to determine the nature of followers is to compare their motivation and capabilities. Leaders need to assess the level of each individual’s internal motivation, attitude, and confidence, and then compare that to his or her level of competence in a particular situation. Note that one’s motivation and competence might change depending on the circumstances—an expert in one area may be completely incompetent in another. In other words, choosing appropriate leadership styles requires sound judgment and critical analysis of each situation. Take a look at the following matrix for examples of worker motivation versus competence.


The following matrix compares the three conditions, as well as advantages and disadvantages, of each style of leadership.


Overlaying the styles of leadership based upon the degree of leader control over the Motivation-Competence matrix helps us conceptualize how to apply the right style. In situations of low competence and low motivation, we will usually need to be more directive, giving much more explanation of why and how we need things to be done. This can be quite frustrating for some people, and very demanding on time and energy; thus, we need to be careful to control emotions and not become angry with followers. For those with low abilities but high motivation, we act more like trainers or coaches. It’s important to not patronize or look down upon followers as we train and coach, however, as this will crush their enthusiasm. As competency and motivation increases in our teams, we can leverage their expertise with a more participatory style. This style treats team members as peers, and requires respect and willingness to take inputs. As we move toward highly motivated and highly skilled workers, we can be confident in delegating duties and simply overseeing their work. But we must not be lulled into a false sense of security, as the leader never abdicates ultimate authority and responsibility. Probably the biggest challenge for any leader is dealing with those workers who have great capability, but seem to lack internal motivation to be effective. In this case, we need to find a spark that will ignite their enthusiasm, providing physical and emotional support as required. On the other hand, we can’t fall into a trap of doing things for these workers that they should be doing themselves—it may require a firm push to get this worker out of a comfort zone. The activity below will help us put these analytical tools into practice.


Activity: Applying Leadership Styles


Please read the following scenario and then use the leadership style tools from above to consider solutions to the questions.

The CEO of ACME Corporation has just found out that one of their best customers, Wile E. Coyote, is irate over a broken piece of equipment. He is threatening to sue, and take his substantial business elsewhere. The CEO feels blindsided by this situation, and investigates, finding the following facts about four of the involved employees.

Worker One:


He’s an enthusiastic worker who often takes initiative to help customers. Unfortunately, he directly caused the incident. When he found that the customer had a problem, and was not able to get timely assistance from the responsible department, he jumped in to help. Because he had no special expertise in that equipment, he ended up giving the wrong advice to the customer, and the equipment was subsequently damaged.

Worker Two:


He’s one of the company’s more experienced workers, who can fix just about any problem with the company’s products. However, he tends to not take responsibility for personal development, declining extra projects and training opportunities, and generally does just enough to get by. He has the most expertise in the area of the customer’s problem, and would have been the company’s point of contact for this problem, but was unavailable in the break room when the customer called, as is often the case.

Worker Three:


In a recent re-organization, her old job was eliminated, forcing her to move to the department with direct responsibility for the equipment which was having a problem. She was the first person whom the customer approached. She knew it was in her department’s area of responsibility, but she had not yet learned the technical knowledge, so she declined to help, handing the problem off to Worker One.

Worker Four:


The direct supervisor of Worker One, she found out about the incident after the customer complained. In fact, with her expertise, she was able to solve the machine problem and get it back to working order, although the customer had already lost valuable production time due to the mistake. She did her best to protect Worker One; feeling that the problem had been adequately solved, she attempted to hide the incident from the leadership higher up in the company.

Where do each of the workers fit into the Motivation-Competence matrix?

Which worker committed the worst act?

How do you think the CEO should deal with each of the workers?

As we contemplate different leadership styles and their application, whether by ourselves or in leadership development sessions, we can use this scenario to explore how much control or independence to give followers. The considerations are not all inclusive…we may think of other factors that would influence a proper leadership style choice. In future articles, we will dig deeper into these styles, and perhaps some others, in order to expand our leadership tool kit and increase our skills.

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

Leadership Traits: Fairness and Justness

Everyone agrees that a good leader should be fair and just…and even monkeys understand the concept. But what is “fair and just”? Living the Golden Rule, avoiding double standards, and following some standard criteria for decision making will help us develop the leadership trait of fairness and justness.

“Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just.” – Victor Hugo, French poet, novelist, and dramatist

Do you think you are just, or fair, with other people? Does everyone see “fairness” the same way? When we are trying to be fair, how do we balance treating people equally with rewarding star performers based on merit or being compassionate with people based on their needs? After all, if we give top performers more salary, or have sympathy for workers faced with terrible circumstances and give them special consideration, doesn’t that mean we are not treating everyone equally? The idea of being fair or just as a leader may not be as simple as it first seems.

What is Fair and Just?

When we ask people to think about desirable leadership traits, justness or fairness will inevitably make it on the list. Just about everyone would agree that leaders should exhibit fairness…but what is “fair” or “just”? One good place to begin to understand this important leadership trait would be with the “Golden Rule.” The Golden Rule can be expressed either in the positive—behave toward others as you want them to behave toward you—or in the negative—don’t behave toward others as you don’t want them to behave toward you. It shows up in many cultures, signifying its basic resonance with humans as a morally right principle that articulates our sense of fairness or justice. Below are some of the various occurrences of the rule in different times and places:


Perhaps a converse of the Golden Rule is “Do as I say…not as I do” (in Thai, ทำตามที่ฉันสั่ง แต่อย่าทำตามฉันนะ). Following a double standard, one for us and one for our workers, introduces a disease of unfair treatment into workplaces that can destroy morale and effectiveness.  The hypocrisy of “Do as I say, not as I do” can introduce many problems:

  • Resentment or Animosity
  • Loss of Respect and Moral Authority
  • Confusion
  • Non-Compliance
  • Loss of Team cohesion
  • Poor work performance

If we as the leader don’t “walk our talk,” followers will disregard what we say, and disregard the rules of the workplace, as they follow our own example in lacking respect for rules. Fairness is everyone following the same rules, no exceptions.

In the social psychological theory known as “moral foundations theory,” fairness is listed as one of the five basic moral foundations common to humanity, along with care, loyalty, respect, and purity. Fairness in this context is seen as executing justice according to shared rules. Its opposite is cheating, or not abiding by the established rules. Cultural anthropologists and ethologists (scientists who study animal behavior under natural conditions) also link fairness to the concept of reciprocity, which has been observed in primates. In this moral foundations theory, our sense of fairness is an innate characteristic that has evolved in human society. Take a look at this clip of capuchin monkeys demonstrating a sense of fairness, from a presentation by ethologist Frans de Waal. The two monkeys have been given the task of exchanging a rock for a treat. At first, both monkeys were given a piece of cucumber for performing the task, which was perfectly fine with them. But then, one monkey is given a sweet grape, while the other is offered the cucumber for the same task. See how the monkey reacts to unequal pay for equal work.


And another example from the BBC documentary “Capuchins: The Monkey Puzzle”….

 As we see from the monkeys’ reactions to distribution of different types of food, fairness is about the “proper” or “morally right” allocation of limited goods or services in a society or organization. One well-known theory defining fairness comes from American political philosopher John Rawls’ concept of “Justice as Fairness.” Rawls offers a thought experiment, in which a people setting up a just and fair society start by choosing the principles of that society from a ‘veil of ignorance,’ meaning that they have no idea about their own status, gender, ethnicity, or even conception of good as they consider what principles should govern their society. From that original position, he believes that people would choose “justice as fairness” in two basic principles: the liberty principle and the equality principle. The liberty principle states that every individual has an equal right to basic liberties (although what makes the list of basic liberties is not universally defined). The equality principle is divided into fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle. Fair equality of opportunity means that everyone should have an equal opportunity for “offices and positions” as any other individual of similar natural ability. The difference principle attempts to deal with inequalities, including in natural abilities, by stating that society should permit inequalities only if it works to the advantage of the worst-off. Particularly with this last principle, Rawls argues that the ideal society, as imagined from the original position created behind a veil of ignorance, would support “distributive justice.”


Distributive justice, or distributive fairness, is one of three major areas into which we can divide the concept of fairness, along with procedural fairness and interactional fairness. Distributive fairness refers to how rewards are allocated in an equitable or fair manner. In a business organization, for example, fair distribution would be that wages of every individual are perceived as being justly assigned. It is concerned with the outcome of the allocation of limited goods or services, rewards or punishments. Procedural fairness is about the perception of the fairness of the process that determines how those rewards (or punishments) are given. A fair process usually requires transparency, opportunity to make inputs, and clear communication. Interactional fairness involves the emotional sense that individuals are being treated with respect in the execution of the process of allocating rewards or punishments. Someone at work may feel that the rewards are distributed fairly, and that the process is fair, but still feel slighted by the attitude of those running the process and making the distribution decisions.

The concept of fairness in the workplace has been studied for many decades already, particularly since behavioral psychologist J. Stacy Adams proposed the Equity Theory in the early 1960s. Her theory sees fairness as a primary motivator of workers, who continuously make a cost-benefit analysis to their work effort. They compare the inputs that they make to work, such as time, effort, loyalty, etc., to the outputs that they receive, such as compensation, respect, development opportunities, etc., and then compare to relevant others in or outside the organization. If a worker perceives that her inputs are not being fairly rewarded, compared to other people, she will lose motivation to perform as effectively as possible in the organization. In fact, she can react to the unfair situation in one or more of six ways:

  • Change inputs, such as putting in less time or effort, so that her costs to work go down.
  • Change the outcomes, such as asking for higher salary or seeking more praise and recognition.
  • Distort her self-perception, so that she lowers her own evaluation of her self-worth.
  • Distort her perception of others, attributing comparatively more deserving qualities to them.
  • Choose a different person to compare to.
  • Leave the company.

Of course, none of these situations is ideal for an organization.


Employees may even make seemingly irrational economic decisions in the face of perceived unfairness, if we interpret the results from one widely-used economic game. In the Ultimatum game, played in one round only between two people, the first person is given a certain amount of money. He must propose to share part of it with the second person, between 0 and 100% of the amount. If the respondent accepts the offer, they split the money according to the terms. If the respondent rejects the money, neither gets to keep it. According to the most economically rational action, the respondent should accept any amount, because having some amount of money is better than having none. But in about half the cases in multiple studies, respondents reject any offer less than about 30%. Just like the capuchin monkeys, who would just as soon not eat than take a morsel of food that they thought was unfairly distributed, a worker who feels unfairly treated may forego economic benefit if it means that the offending entity is punished. The lesson? It pays to treat people fairly.


Research has found links between the perception of fairness in the workplace to employee performance, retention, work engagement, and organizational loyalty. One study of 100 French companies found a strong correlation between transformational, change-inspiring leaders and their reputation for fairness. A 2006 study in the Australian banking industry found a relationship between perceptions of fairness (in which distributive and procedural fairness were closely linked) and both organizational commitment and turnover intention. In a study of retail business managers in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand, another research team found that procedural fairness, and transparency of the Human Resources practices “significantly influenced job satisfaction as a whole group.”

Application—How to be Fair?

So we all agree that it’s important to be fair. But what makes being a fair and just leader so challenging? There are many types of decisions that leaders must make regarding employees, customers, suppliers, and perhaps other stakeholders, that are subject to being scrutinized as fair or unfair:

  • wages and other compensation
  • job evaluations
  • promotions
  • job assignments
  • extra project assignments
  • training
  • bonuses
  • vacation or personal time given
  • office location
  • downsizing
  • dispute resolution
  • punishments for rule breaking or bad behavior
  • vendor selection

In each of these types of decisions, and many more, a leader must allocate limited resources, or choose one individual over others. Let’s look at a few suggestions that may help make these types of decisions clearer and more methodical, which hopefully leads to being fairer. Psychologist Gerald S. Leventhal suggests six criteria for making a decision-making process just and fair. I have transformed his criteria into a list of questions that we can ask ourselves when we need to make fair decisions:

Criteria for Making a Fair Process Decision

  • Is my decision consistent with others between people and over time?
  • Have I acknowledged and suppressed my own biases?
  • Have I avoided the practice or appearance of favoritism?
  • Has my information been complete and accurate?
  • If I’ve made an error, would this decision be able to be corrected or appealed?
  • Have I allowed the representation of the basic concerns, values, and perspectives of all involved individuals?
  • Does my decision conform to ethical and moral standards?[i]


Another research team, Kim and Mauborgne, have established a three-principle approach to making fair decisions, known as “the 3 E’s” of fair process:

  • Engagement – involving all affected individuals and allowing them to appeal
  • Explanation – Clearly communicating the final decision and the reasoning behind the decision.
  • Expectations – Articulating the rules of the game, and roles and responsibilities of all involved in the decision.

In order to make our decisions more just or fair from a distributive fairness aspect, philosopher-authors Tom Beauchamp and Norman Bowie have proposed six principles of distributive justice. These in fact are more “considerations” than principles, as their application is situational. The list highlights the fact that different people will see a “fair” solution from a different perspective. In making decisions on allocating rewards, one must balance the following:

Shares of rewards or opportunities are shared

  • equally
  • according to individual need
  • according to an individual’s rights
  • according to a person’s effort
  • according to one’s societal contribution
  • according to one’s performance or merit

The activity below provides an opportunity to apply the above principles in making a fair decision.

Activity: Making a Fair and Just Decision to Assign a New Branch Manager

You are the boss of a small retail company that employs 50 employees. You have just opened a new branch, in a high-traffic area that is sure to make a lot of money for the manager of this branch, as compensation includes volume of business generated. The branch is also in a very convenient location; thus, the competition for the new position is fierce. You can hire only one manager, although five of your strongest employees have applied, all of whom have the basic qualifications:

  1. Manager A recently had the tragedy of losing his wife to breast cancer, and he now has three young children to feed. He demonstrates the greatest need of the candidates.
  2. Manager B is one of only a very few minorities in your entire company. She just missed the last promotion step, and you sympathized with her greatly, promising you would do whatever you could to help her get the next promotion. She strongly feels that she has the greatest right to be hired for this position.
  3. Manager C, although not the best skilled worker, has the highest amount of working hours in the company, has been with the company since its inception, and has consistently volunteered for overtime and worked extremely hard. He feels that he deserves the job because he has put in more individual effort than any other candidate.
  4. Manager D has contributed in many ways to the company, volunteering whenever needed, and has done a tremendous job of running corporate charitable activities, which have greatly elevated the brand image of the company. She feels she should get the job because she has made the highest societal contribution.
  5. You consider Manager E, although young and less experienced, to be the best hands-on manager in the company. He comes with an impressive academic and training background, is exceptionally bright (and knows it), and most importantly, has been the top performer since his arrival, far outpacing his colleagues in productivity and innovation. He feels that he should get the job because he is the best performer of all the candidates.

Which one of these will you hire? Which do you believe is most “fair” in this situation—to hire based on need, rights, effort, social contribution, or performance? Explain your decision.


As a leader, it is important to develop a trait of fairness and justness within oneself, and to cultivate a culture of fairness in the business. Being fair and just can require a delicate balance—there will always have to be people selected for limited rewards or benefits, and people who will not be selected. Of those who don’t make the cut, we’re probably bound to have dissatisfaction and complaints. But we can work on living the Golden Rule, avoiding double standards, and following standard criteria that will make our decisions as fair and just as possible. As Victor Hugo said, “Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just.”

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

[i] Ludo Van der Heyden, Christine Blondel, Randel S. Carlock, “Fair Process: Striving for Justice in Family Business,” Family Business Review, vol. XVIII, no. 1, March 2005, p. 4.

Positive Principles for Setting and Achieving Goals

Setting goals can be the first step of turning dreams into reality…or into shattering dreams. We’ll see more success when we set the right goals properly and use these principles to achieve them.

It’s something we all know we should do—setting goals—and yet have probably felt frustration in lack of progress. The following article summarizes the latest and most useful tips, particularly from positive psychology, for setting and achieving goals, followed by a short discussion of potential negative effects of improper use of goals in life and work.

Here’s our BLUF…Bottom Line Up Front:

Principles for Setting Goals

  • Make Goals That Are Within Your Control and Power to Achieve.
  • Make Goals Simple. Limit to Small, Plannable, Reachable Goals.
  • Split into Stretch Goals and Supporting Goals.
  • Follow the SMART Action Plan. Identify Objective, Actions, Supporting Resources, Feedback Methods, Timeframe.
  • Structure Goals So You Believe You Have a 70% Likelihood of Success.
  • Design Goals with Some Progress Already Accomplished.
  • Establish Milestones, Especially at 70%.

Principles for Achieving the Goals We Set

  • Visualize Success. Expand Your Perception of the Attainability of the Goal.
  • Make a Plan with Bright Lines.
  • Make a Public Commitment with Someone to Hold You Accountable.
  • Establish Incremental Awards (or Punishments).
  • Share Your Goals in Social Networks.
  • Get Feedback. Visually Display Progress.
  • Get Grit—Stick to the Goal with Effort.
  • Focus on the Goal, Not the Competition or Obstacles.
  • Recall Past Successes and Effort Spent.
  • Prioritize Your Use of Mental Energy.

Some Cautions About Goals

  • Make Them Relevant.
  • Beware of These Possible Harmful Side Effects
  • Goldilocks Principle – Not Too Hard, Not Too Easy.

1. Principles for Setting Goals

Make Goals That Are Within Your Control and Power to Achieve.

One of the most important principles in setting an appropriate goal is to ensure that you have control over the required inputs to achieving that goal, and have power to make changes. For example, while making a goal to get promoted to head of your department may seem admirable and appropriately ambitious, you don’t control promotions. Instead, your goal could be to obtain an additional certification or skill that increases your chances of promotion. We need both an acute awareness of the things that we can control and influence, as well as an “ownership” attitude that proactively takes responsibility for our own actions. We can imagine ourselves living in a series of spheres, with the first sphere being that which we control—things we can learn for ourselves, do for ourselves. The next sphere is that which we can influence—convincing others to provide resources or assistance that we can’t provide alone. Finally, there are many things that might make us feel stressed or concern us, but into which we have very little or no input. The closer your goal is to the inner circle, the more chance of success you will have in achieving it.


According to psychologist Shawn Achor, “the most successful people, in work and in life, are those who have what psychologists call an ‘internal locus of control,’ the belief that their actions have a direct effect on their outcomes.”[i] People with this “internal locus of control” don’t blame circumstances or environment when things don’t go their way—but they are also aware of things that they can effect and things that they cannot, and look to expand their area of control. It can be stressful on us when we feel we don’t have control, when we feel our circle of influence is too small to make a difference. Scientific studies have shown, however, that articulating a stressful situation and emotions actually diminish the negative effects of the stress, and provide our first step to taking control. Dr. Achor suggests writing down a list of stresses, challenges, and goals and separating them into categories of those over which we have control and those we don’t. Then, we take an item over which we have control, and develop that as our goal. Proper goals should be ones which we can control the outcome.

Make Goals Simple. Limit to Small, Plannable, Reachable Goals.

In The Mask of Zorro, the older Zorro, played by Anthony Hopkins, takes in the young and hot-headed Alejandro, played by Antonio Banderas, as his replacement. Alejandro is obsessed with revenge against the evil Captain Love. But the goal of revenge is too vague to be useful, and Alejandro is full of enthusiasm but lacking in skills to achieve his goal; when Hopkins’ character asks the fiery young man if he knows how to use his sword, he replies, “Yeah, the pointy end goes into the other man.”  The wise older Zorro breaks down Alejandro’s ambitions into small, plannable, short-term goals by bringing him into the training circle, or “Master’s Wheel.” Training Alejandro with a combination of strict adherence to technique, but with frequent positive encouragement, elder Zorro helps the young man achieve control over himself first, and then to expand his sphere of control. He concentrates on small areas where he knows Alejandro can have an effect. Enjoy the 3-minute clip of young Zorro learning to control his development through small, plannable, reachable goals below:

Split into Stretch Goals and Supporting Goals

General Electric (GE) pioneered a system of goal-setting in the 1940s, according to author Charles Duhigg, in which employees developed their own specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals which became a contract for performance. In most cases, this dramatically improved work performance. But some units were setting goals that were trivial or short-sighted; they met the SMART criteria (discussed below), but weren’t contributing to the bottom line of the company. Consequently, GE developed the concept of brainstorming “stretch goals,” in which the emphasis wasn’t on being easily achievable, but on inspiring innovation and meaning. Stretch goals can be nested in a hierarchy of ambitions, as well. Our highest level stretch goal would be our life purpose statement. From that broad objective, we can narrow down the focus, step-by-step, to goals that we manage in our day-to-day actions.

The specific goals of the SMART system needed to be linked to longer-term, overarching purpose and principles. Success comes when we attach those specific goals that occupy our daily lives to our life purposes and principles (which I have discussed in previous articles).

Follow the SMART Action Plan. Identify Objective, Actions, Supporting Resources, Feedback Methods, Timeframe.

The most popular technique for stating goals is the “SMART” method. Sources vary on the exact terminology, but I find the most useful to be the following principles:

Specific           — Make it simple and concrete. Avoid vague statements like “Do my best.”

Measurable      — Describe in measurable terms, such as quantities or objective assessment of quality, what success looks like.

Achievable      — Ensure you have control and the resources (people, materials, time) to accomplish the goal.

Relevant          — Align with your life purpose and principles. Assess whether the resources spent on this goal will provide the best return on investment compared to other alternative goals.

Time-bound     — Goals are dreams with a deadline. Establish intermediate mile markers as well as “completed by” date.

In order to make a goal statement more specific, include the elements of “Why, Who, What, How, Where, When.”

      • Why. Why is the goal relevant? How does it relate to your basic principles or goals in your career and life? You can keep digging to several levels of “why.” For example, ask yourself, “why is this objective important to me?” When you answer “This is important to me because [1st reason]” then ask yourself again why that 1st reason in important to you, and keep repeating for several iterations. The fundamental “Why” of our actions is the single most important motivating factor in getting us to complete a goal.
      • Who. Is this just for yourself, or does it involve others? If it involves others, how much control or influence do you have on the behavior of the others in order to successfully achieve the objective? What communication or persuasive skills do you need? What incentives can you offer to others to cooperate?
      • What. Use a verb or action in the objective statement, i.e. increase, improve, reduce, etc.
      • How. What are the means, tools, methods that you will use? For example, use a phrase like “I will increase X by following [how]”
      • Where. Just in your work space, or other places? Limiting the scope helps make it more achievable.
      • When. Set the timeframe, in multiple increments to succeed in stages if necessary.

As for improving the “Measurable” element, try including the measurement in your goal statement, i.e. “increase by x%,” “Achieve 100% ….” Also, identify the current gaps. For example, if you’re looking for 100% compliance with something, what is the current rate of compliance? If you want to improve communication skills as a goal, what are your current skill levels?

The illustration below gives an example of linking stretch goals to more narrowly-focused supporting goals.


Once we have the goal statement in place, following the guidance of the SMART method, we can build an action plan to achieve our goals. The action plan gets to the “nitty gritty” of how we will set ourselves up for success. Here’s how to do it:

  • Make a table with five columns, labeled Objective, Actions, Support/Resources, Progress/Feedback, Time Frame.
  • In the Objective column, state your stretch goal and then the specific, supporting goal.
  • In the Actions column, commit to specific behaviors that will move you toward your goal.
  • In the Support/Resources column, brainstorm on all the tools that are available to assist you, including people, information, technology, or other resources.
  • In the Progress/Feedback column, write down measures of success or other sources that can assess your progress toward the goal. You might include a visual aid (discussed below) to record your progress.
  • In the Time Frame column, state your deadline, as well as appropriate milestones with an associated date.

Please see the example below of an action plan.


Structure Goals So You Believe You Have a 70% Likelihood of Success.

Research in positive psychology has shown that we have a much higher rate of success when we believe that we can succeed. Our goals should be challenging, but not too high above our expected capabilities.

Design Goals with Some Progress Already Accomplished.

In the 1920s, behavioral scientist Clark Hull found an interesting phenomenon in rats that were trained to make it through a maze to receive a reward—the closer they got to the reward, the faster they ran! It turns out that humans follow this behavior as well, but with the twist that it is our perception of closeness to a target that boosts us up to the Super Mario mode–the closer we perceive that we get to a target, the more energy we have and the faster we strive toward that goal.

We can help boost our success by designing our goals with some progress already accomplished, so that we psychologically feel that we are closer to the goal. In 2006, the business school at Columbia University performed an experiment related to Hull’s finding that we move faster when we approach a goal. Experimenters gave two sets of subjects “customer loyalty” cards for a coffee shop. They both had the same conditions—buy 10 cups of coffee and get a reward of a free coffee—but they were presented in different ways. The first group had a card with 10 empty circles, which would get stamped one-by-one as they bought coffee to reach their reward. The second group received a card with 12 circles, but two of them were already stamped! At the very beginning, the first group had the perception that they were merely 0 percent along the way to their goal, but the second group was already 1/6th of the way there. This subtle psychological trick indeed had a significant effect on how fast the second group bought coffee and sped toward the reward of a free cup.[ii]

CoffeeCardClosertoTargetIllustrationBesides learning how to get customers to spend money faster, the lesson for us is that we can help ourselves feel closer to our goals by designing a head start into them. Rarely do we start toward a goal from scratch—we have our wealth of experience and knowledge that can be applied to a specific goal. For example, if you’re looking to increase revenue in a certain area as the goal, include the revenue already made so that the goal doesn’t look so daunting.

Establish Milestones, Especially at 70%.

Just like the rats in Dr. Hull’s maze, athletes experience the phenomenon of gaining energy and speed as they near the end of a race. Some marathoners and triathletes call the place in a course where the contestant first sees the finish line the “X-spot,” where many will experience a rush of chemicals that pushes them swiftly toward the goal. (In fact, professional marathon events will set up emergency crews at this spot, as the hormone high can overwhelm some contestants, resulting in a higher incidence of heart attacks at this point.)

Athletes get a rush of chemicals when they see the finish line, allowing them to go faster.

We can create our own “X-spots” when we set up goals by establishing milestones of “finish lines” that boost our energy as we approach them. We can plan on making small celebrations of hitting those milestones to highlight our progress. Positive psychology research has identified the 70% marker toward a goal as particularly significant. By the time we reach 70% of our goal, we are more apt to feel we can succeed the whole way. Having invested and accomplished so much to that point, the remaining 30% can seem more easily doable. When filling out a SMART Action Plan, highlight the 70% point of progress in the goal’s timeline.

2. Principles for Achieving the Goals We Set

When a pilot is flying up to a tanker airplane to refuel, her brain is constantly calculating several parameters. With the goal of getting the nozzle of the “boom,” the solid tube through which the jet fuel will flow, into the receptacle on the receiver’s aircraft, at speeds hundreds of kilometers per hour, the brain is constantly assessing its perception of the distance to target, the size of target and probability of hitting it, and energy required to get there. After we’ve established our SMART goals and action plan, we go through the same constant assessment as we approach the goal. Adjusting our perception of any of these three factors can increase our probability of success. The principles below show how we can adjust perceptions and increase our likelihood of attaining our goal.

A pilot flying up to the tanker for refueling constantly analyzes distance to target, probability of hitting it, and energy required. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Visualize Success. Expand Your Perception of the Attainability of the Goal.

The first critical step to successfully accomplishing our goals is to draw a complete mental picture of what achieving the objective looks like. Scientific research has shown that when we envision success, we increase the chances of it becoming a self-fulfilling reality. One fascinating experiment that illustrates this principle begins with this visual illusion, called an Ebbinghaus illusion. Take a look at the figure and say (honestly!) which center circle looks larger.

Ebbinghaus illusion

You can probably guess from the discussion that the two center circles are the same size…but the one surrounded by smaller circles (on the right) looks larger. How does this affect our reality? Experimenters had volunteer subjects attempt to putt golf balls from 2 meters away as close to the center hole as possible, just as they would putt into the hole on a golfing green. Remarkably, when putting toward the hole that they perceived to be larger, on the right, their putts were significantly closer to the hole.

Subjects were able to putt closer to the hole that appeared larger, even though the holes are the same size. Source:

Visualization of success has long been used by top-level athletes. Olympic athletes, particularly ones doing routines such as gymnastics or ski jumping, will mentally go through their movements, with strict attention to every detail. The more realistic they can make the simulations, including sounds, touch, temperature…every possible sensory input… the more effective the visualizations. Aerial ski jumper Emily Cook describes her visualization process in the video below:

Aerial Ski Jumper Emily Cook uses a very detailed visualization routine to attain her top level of performance.  Source: New York Times

In the same way, we can visualize the state of success in our goal, with as much detail as we can imagine. This serves as a powerful motivator to make our target look larger (closer to accomplishment) and more obtainable.

Make a Plan with Bright Lines.

Scientist and authors Owain Service and Rory Gallagher, in their work Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals, provide a seven-step path to problem-solving and goal accomplishment. They start with setting a goal, followed by the second step to make a simple plan with “bright lines.” The lines are easy to identify boundaries, either for things you want to avoid, or minimum behaviors you want to accomplish. For example, if trying to reduce a behavior such as alcohol consumption, one can set a specific maximum number of glasses per day. For a positive action, such as getting in better physical shape, one can count minimum trips to gym, kilometers run per week, or something else easy to keep track and display.

Make a Public Commitment with Someone to Hold You Accountable.

The third step recommended by Service and Gallagher is to find a commitment referee–someone to hold you to the commitment. Avoid family members or easy going friends who will let you off the hook. A colleague at work, or a friend in a social or religious circle, are good candidates as accountability partners.

Establish Incremental Awards (or Punishments).

After establishing the “X-spot” mile markers in our goal statement, we can give ourselves incentives at those spots. These can be small rewards for incremental victories, such as treating our self to a lunch or a favorite recreation activity. Alternatively, we can establish “punishments” as a deterrent for failing to meet an incremental goal or violating a behavior standard we are trying to establish. This could include denying oneself a recreational activity, or making a lighthearted agreement with the referee, as Service and Gallagher did—wearing a rival’s team jersey for missing a gym attendance goal.

Share Your Goals in Social Networks.

Intentionally subjecting ourselves to positive social pressure can be very effective in helping stick to pursuing a goal. Personal interaction will have the strongest effect, but the widespread use of digital social networks easily allows a public commitment to a goal.

Get Feedback. Visually Display Progress.

The sixth step in Service and Gallagher’s method, confirmed by several studies, is to get constant feedback, put into visual form as much as possible. Visual displays that remind us of the relationship of the support goal to the stretch goal, including our general life purpose, are particularly effective.

Get Grit—Stick to the Goal with Effort.

Service and Gallagher’s final step is to practice with focus and persistent effort—to strengthen our “grit” factor. People who have learned to view their work as a calling, by connecting their work to a larger, meaningful purpose, are more able to stick with pursuing a goal in the face of challenges or boredom.

Focus on the Goal, Not the Competition or Obstacles.

An interesting study of students taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which is commonly used across the United States for assessing college entrance eligibility, showed that the more students in the room taking the test, the lower the average test score. It turns out our perception of the number of people competing with us affects our performance in reaching a goal. If we can mitigate the feeling that we have numerous competitors, we can improve our engagement and concentration.

In preparation for becoming a military attaché, I took a defensive driving course. The instructor pointed out the strange phenomenon that drivers trying to control their vehicle in a crash situation often end up steering right into an obstacle, even if it’s surrounded by clear space. This is because our hands tend to follow where our eyes are focused…and the easiest thing to focus on is an obstacle, not a clear escape space. The course taught us to steer for the safe open space—to fix our eyes there instead of on the obstacle.


Likewise, we shouldn’t focus on our competition or obstacles. We can work on perceiving fewer competitors, avoiding situations that make us feel like there are too many other competitors. For example, if you’re an author, don’t spend a lot of time in a bookstore that reminds you that there are lots of books already! Focus on success more than failure.

Recall Past Successes and Effort Spent.

Especially when we’re faced with disagreeable tasks, and it’s hard to find the motivation to reach a goal, it can be just as effective looking back at accomplishments as visualizing success. Reminding ourselves of the time and effort already spent, and previous accomplishments in similar goals, escalates our commitment.

Prioritize Your Use of Mental Energy.

Cognitive functions are like muscles, and mental energy put into one activity will make us more mentally tired when we try to do the next. We can conserve our mental energy for use in attaining goals by prioritizing mental tasks, eliminating as many conscious decisions as possible by establishing a regular routine (time to get up, menu items, when you take a coffee break, etc.). Additionally, we can decrease our focus on things that we can’t control, and worries about obstacles, which drains our mental energy.

3. Some Cautions About Goals

Goal-setting is not a panacea that cures all of our ills, or makes us super producers. One set of authors, in a paper titled “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” argues that “goal setting has powerful and predictable side effects. Rather than being offered as an “over-the-counter” salve for boosting performance, goal setting should be prescribed selectively, presented with a warning label, and closely monitored.”[iii] Below are important caveats to keep in mind when setting and striving for goals.

Make Them Relevant.

As the GE case showed, workers may follow all the SMART goal criteria, but make trivial or meaningless goals. Charles Duhigg notes that “Experiments have shown that people with SMART goals are more likely to seize on the easiest tasks, to become obsessed with finishing projects, and to freeze on priorities once a goal has been set.”[iv] The wrong emphasis in goal-setting can cause people to focus on short-term gains only, without consideration for strategic development, either personally or on an organizational level. This is why associating goals with stretch goals and larger purposes and principles is essential.

Beware of These Possible Harmful Side Effects.

  • Degraded employee performance due to stress
  • Focus shifted away from important but non-specified goals
  • Risky and unethical behaviors
  • Inhibited learning
  • Increased unhealthy competition and eroded teamwork
  • decreased intrinsic motivation

If attaining goals is emphasized in such a way as to not allow for failure, employees can feel excessive amounts of stress. Failure to reach a goal could seriously depress morale.

Pressure to achieve goals can influence some employees to take unreasonable risks. In a negotiation, for example, a negotiator with specific goals might take excessive risks and be less willing to compromise in potential win-win situations. Or, if the goals are set too low, the negotiator might leave potential value unexploited if the goal is already obtained. Pressure of performance goals can also provide incentive for some to engage in unethical practices. In the explosion and ensuing massive oil spill that happened in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon incident, executives were pressured to meet performance goals that resulted in decisions to overlook questionable results of safety tests. An organizational culture that valued long-term safety and performance over short-term pressures may have averted that disaster.

Excessive emphasis on performance goals can divert one’s attention away from personal development and learning—when the emphasis is on hitting the quarterly numbers, employees may not feel they have time to devote to self-improvement. Choosing “learning goals” over “performance goals” might be more helpful to alleviate some of the negative side effects.

Goals that pit employees in competition with each other can seriously erode teamwork. Tailoring goals to individuals in an equitable way is challenging, but essential. In many cases, developing a team goal may be more effective.

Some studies have shown that offering external rewards, such as discussed above, can “crowd out” intrinsic motivation. Rewards or punishments are best created by the goal maker, and used carefully.

Some examples of inappropriate goal practices include: focusing on revenue rather than profit; making activities a “numbers game,” such as papers published by a professor in a tenure track; calculating profits without ethical considerations; setting short term revenue goals at the expense of research and development or other strategic considerations; making goals a “ceiling” that encourages quitting once they are reached.

In order to avoid some of these pitfalls, we might follow GE executive Steve Kerr’s advice to “…avoid setting goals that increase employee stress, to refrain from punishing failure, and to provide the tools employees need to meet ambitious goals.”[v]

Goldilocks Principle – Not Too Hard, Not Too Easy.

Goals should be set in a sweet spot between so easy that we lose interest and so hard that we get discouraged and give up. In fact, setting a goal so high that we fail to make it can crush the spirit and discourage future improvement attempts. Research has repeatedly shown, however, that the sweet spot of goal-setting can be very effective. “So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance…specific, high goals lead to a higher level of task performance than do easy goals or vague, abstract goals such as the exhortation to ‘do one’s best.’”[vi]

We all want to improve ourselves, to make our dreams turn into reality, to realize our highest potential. Creating a SMART Action Plan, linked with our life purpose and principles, will increase our success and satisfaction.

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

For Further Reading

Service, Owain and Rory Gallagher. Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals. London: Michael O’Mara Books. 2017.

Duhigg,  Charles. Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York: Random House. 2016.

Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. New York: Crown Business. 2010.

Achor, Shawn. Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change. New York: Crown Business. 2013.

Ordóñez, Lisa D., Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman. “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” Harvard Working Paper. 2009. Available at


[i] Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, New York: Crown Business, 2010, p. 130.

[ii] Shawn Achor, Before Happiness: The 5 Hidden Keys to Achieving Success, Spreading Happiness, and Sustaining Positive Change, New York: Crown Business, 2013, pp. 116-118.

[iii] Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman, “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” Harvard Working Paper, 2009, p. 3.

[iv] Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, New York: Random House, 2016, p. 130.

[v] Ordóñez et al, p. 16.

[vi] Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265-268.