In-Depth: How Goal Commitment Shapes Teamwork

And 3 strategies for how to improve it in your teams

The Liberators
Published in
9 min readApr 22, 2024

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What makes great teamwork? If you’ve been a member of more than one team, you’ve probably noticed that the members of some teams put their motivation and energy together, but it feels more like “loose sand” in other teams. One aspect of this is “team goal commitment” in team research. It indicates to what extent individual members feel committed to achieving the team's goals. And I find it wildly interesting.

and I are on a mission to unleash teams through an evidence-based approach. In this post, I will briefly overview research on (team) goal commitment. I will then translate those insights into highly practical recommendations and actionable tips you can use to improve the quality of teamwork in your team right away. If you’re curious, you can also self-diagnose your team with our new tool and use our extensive feedback in many other areas of teamwork to improve.

Overview of scientific research on goal commitment

Organizational psychologists have long studied goal commitment (see Locke & Latham, 2002 for an overview). In its simplest form, goal commitment is defined as “one’s determination to reach a goal” (Locke & Latham, 1990). The interest in goal commitment emerged as it became clear in the 1950s and 1960s that the command-and-control style of management from the Industrial Revolution didn’t work well for knowledge workers. It also reflected a general shift in psychology from focusing on disorders and mental illness to a more humanistic, positive psychology interested in improving mental health through motivation and self-actualization (Morgan, 2006).

Shared goals are motivating when they are truly collaboratively set, when they are difficult and challenging enough, but not too challenging.

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham developed the Goal-Setting Theory based on data from earlier decades (Locke & Latham, 1990). They argue that people are motivated by challenging and attainable goals given their skills. When goals are clear enough, they provide a directive function on what to spend time on. If they are ambitious enough (but not overly), they provide an energizing function by creating energy and motivation. Finally, if they are challenging enough (but not too challenging), they provide a persistence function by encouraging people to keep trying.

Goal-setting theory is one of the most robust theories in organizational psychology. Locke & Latham (2002) report that “specific difficult goals have been shown to increase performance on well over 100 different tasks involving more than 40,000 participants in at least eight countries, working in a laboratory, simulation, and field settings”. The weight of the evidence removes doubt that clear, specific, and ambitious goals motivate and increase performance (see also Kanfer, Frese & Johnson, 2017). This body of work informed the concept of SMART goals by George Doran (1981). It was also adapted into “Management by Objectives” (MBO) by Peter Drucker. The degree to which people feel committed to the goals of their team is a critical factor in teamwork research (Klein et. al., 2001).

So now that we know about (team) goal commitment, how can we increase it in teams? Let me begin by emphasizing that the strategies below have been helpful to us. That doesn’t mean they’ll be helpful to you too. Every team is different and has different needs. However, the strategies provide a nice starting point.

Without a goal, the goal often implicitly becomes “finish all the work.” This doesn’t provide direction or energize (but rather stresses out) people and doesn’t make them persist (there’s always more work).

Despite the strong evidence that goals are motivating for teams, we observe in our with teams that remarkably few teams actually use goals at all. This also appears to be supported by harder data. Of the 10,000+ teams that have used our online diagnostic tool, “Shared Goals” receives an average rating of 64 on a scale from 1 to 100. There appears to be a lot of room for improvement. What we notice in teams is that goals are often missing altogether or are non-specific (e.g., “Finish all the work” or “Do X, Y, Z and B”). Goal Setting Theory helps us understand why such examples don’t help. Their goals don’t provide a directive function, an energizing function, or a persistence function. So, the net result is low teamwork quality, low overall productivity, and low motivation.

Strategy 1: Set clear goals together

The most effective strategy for improving the quality of goals is to set them collaboratively with your team. While this is an obvious strategy, many teams struggle with it when they lack sufficient autonomy. Team-level goals often have to fit into an overarching goal for the department, value stream, or product.

However, we’ve also noticed that many people think that goal setting is really complicated, but it isn’t all that hard. The only thing you’re trying to do as a team is answer the question: “What is our focus for this iteration, week or month?”. It can even be set daily if the work varies very frequently. The point is that a goal should bring a sense of direction and focus. A goal like “This week, we agree to deliver Feature A and prepare Feature B” is a fine goal. Similarly, “The aim this month is to reduce the number of support calls by 25%” is also fine.

We had a great teamwork experience developing the website for theliberators.com. The team set a daily goal, which created a lot of team spirit and motivation and encouraged us to push through.

Goals don’t need to cover all the work a team does. While there is great value in a laser focus, the nature of teamwork in most cases means that unpredictable stuff will pop up — like a bug or a support issue — that wasn’t anticipated when the goal was set. There may also be recurring work, like administration and invoicing. The point of goals is that they create a “decision moment” every time work that doesn’t align with the goal could be picked up. You can then decide not to do the work right now because it isn’t important enough — a decision you probably wouldn’t have taken without that goal.

Questions to test the quality of goals

We’ve found the following questions to be helpful to test if a goal meets the three functions of Goal Setting Theory:

  • “Of all the activities that we normally do as a team, will this goal help us distinguish between those we should invest time in and those that aren’t important (right now)?”
  • “Does this goal give us enough flexibility to be creative at the moment while giving us enough direction to avoid getting lost?”
  • “Would we feel a sense of accomplishment as a team upon achieving this goal? Or is it too simple for us or too ambitious?”
  • “Does this goal feel ambitious enough for our abilities as a team? Should we make it slightly more ambitious or dial back a bit?”
  • WRITE: “For each person individually, does this goal provide you with a sense of shared purpose or direction?”

A simple goal-setting exercise to do with your team

The simplest exercise to set a collaborative goal uses the Liberating Structure 1–2–4-ALL and 15% Solutions. This “mini-string” begins with what is on each member’s mind. It also helps them think about how they can contribute to the shared goal. A good moment to run this string is right after you have collaboratively reviewed the work delivered by the team in the current iteration (pick what makes sense: day, week, Sprint, month, etc.):

  1. (2 min) Individually and in silence, each member makes a short list of activities they think are the best way for the team to spend their next iteration.
  2. (4 min) Invite people to form pairs. Ask them to share their lists and notice underlying themes and overlapping activities.
  3. (15 min) Now as a whole group, each pair briefly shares what they noticed. If any clear themes jump out, you can collaboratively use those to set a goal in the template: “In our next iteration, we will work together to …. so that …”. It's okay if the sentence contains two sub-goals, but fewer is always better. If no clear themes emerge, you can repeat 1 and 2 with the invitation, “What would make a great goal for us next iteration?”.
  4. (2 min) Individually and silently, ask each member to identify one or more 15% Solutions. Ask: “Identify one or more concrete steps you will undertake to contribute to achieving the team goal that makes good use of your skills and abilities.”
  5. (4 min) Invite people to share their 15% Solutions in small groups (2 or 3). Encourage their partners to help make the 15% Solutions more concrete.

Don’t worry if this process feels like a struggle the first few times. It tends to get progressively easier as members start thinking more about goals and less about all the things that need to be done.

If you want to set long-term goals, a Liberating Structure like Ecocycle Planning is a great idea to first reflect on your activities to date and then identify what needs work.

Strategy 2: Make goals visible

Setting goals collaboratively is great. But it doesn’t help if the goal disappears in someone’s drawer as a sticky. For goals to serve the three functions set out in Goal Setting Theory, we like to keep it as visible as possible for the team. For example:

  • Write the goal on a big banner and hang it in the team room.
  • At the start of every day, briefly meet with your team to talk about how everyone plans to use today to work towards the goal. Some teams like to do this at the end of the day.
  • Every time work is picked up that doesn’t align with the goal, challenge the team gently to reconsider. Ask: “What would be lost if we remain focused on the goal and do this later?”.
  • At the end of your iteration (day, week, month, Sprint, etc.), reflect on how you worked together to achieve your goal.
A review in progress for a team. This team used goals to create a focus for their iterations. At the end of each iteration, the work was reviewed (as shown here) and a new goal was set based on what was learned.

Strategy 3: Redesign the team and its work

Even with the above strategies, some teams can still not formulate goals to create a motivating, energizing environment where members persist even when it gets tough. This often points at deeper structural issues in how teams and the work to be done by them are designed:

  • It's not really a team. Everyone mostly works on their tasks. There is no cohesion in the work or a desire or need for it. It is effectively a group of people doing their own things.
  • Teams don’t have any autonomy. In some organizations, work is handed to teams in such a detailed fashion that they can’t make any decisions of their own (i.e. work items are assigned to members by a manager). This lack of autonomy makes it hard for members to connect personally with the goals set for the team.
  • The nature of the work doesn’t suit teamwork. The notion of teamwork was developed in response to complex tasks that can’t be done by individuals and require multiple minds instead. Not all work suits those criteria.

If you recognize this in your team(s), we recommend redesigning the teams and their work if you are serious about increasing team goal commitment. One of the best ways to do this in our experience, is the Liberating Structure “Purpose to Practice” for the new team or teams. It starts by involving the members directly in reshaping their work, increasing autonomy, and fostering teamwork. Check out this blog post for examples of how to run it.

You can download the poster here, together with all our other Liberating Structures illustrations.

Closing Words

Collaborative goal setting is a great way to create more motivating environments for teams. It is one of the ingredients of high-quality teamwork and high-performing teams. Despite the robust scientific evidence for the value of shared goals, many teams and organizations still don’t recognize their potential.

In this post, I provided a brief overview of scientific research on goals. More importantly, I provided three practical strategies to make better use of shared goals with your team. Give them a try and see how the quality of your teamwork will benefit from it.

You can self-diagnose the quality of teamwork in your team with our new tool (free for individual teams) and use our feedback to improve. This tool also measures other areas related to high-quality teamwork, such as task cohesion, psychological safety, task interdependency, and so on. It’s cool.

You can already support us with $1/month. Find out more on patreon.com/liberators

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Christiaan Verwijs
The Liberators

I liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing, ineffective ways of organizing work. Developer, organizational psychologist, scientist, and Scrum Master.