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Reaching For The Stars

A Refresh for 2023: Promoting Aspiration, Not Top-Down Goals

Jan. 19, 2023
Better to tap into employees' intrinsic motivation than dictate outcomes.

It’s hard to tell how much the press is sensationalizing Elon Musk’s “hardcore” management style, but 50% layoffs and roughly 1,000 resignations will likely pass Twitter’s new fact-checking apparatus. The big question it raises for me is whether this type of shock treatment will be effective in creating a highly motivated workforce focused on the right priorities. 

There seem to be two opposing philosophies on how to maximize results. On one hand. we have Google’s discovery that psychological safety is what distinguishes their highest-performing teams. On the other, we have Musk threatening employees. 

What they might both have in common is the motivation of aspirational goals.

For decades, perhaps centuries, management science has promoted “command and control” to achieve results. The performance management systems that follow this philosophy impose top-down goals and hold employees accountable for achieving results. Predictably, this makes people feel subordinated and squashes their aspirations. Knowing that incentives are tied to achieving goals, employees game the system by setting a low bar they know they can achieve. This all-too-common kind of performance management ends up working against its intent.

To be fair, this traditional management approach championed by Frederick Taylor at the turn of the century and reimagined in the 1950s with Peter Drucker’s MBO (management by objectives) probably worked well for business owners where the employee had little choice but to endure dictates. These are very different times, as Mr. Musk is discovering. Fortunately, we have seen the rise of more democratic methods that tap into employees’ intrinsic motivation to aspire. 

OKRs (objectives and key results) top the list. In order to encourage employees to shoot high, OKRs do not tie reward and punishment to results achievement. The best endorsement of this method comes from the CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. In 2008, Sundar Pichai declared the objective of “building the best browser” and set the goal of 20 million users in the first year. He got less than 10 million. The second year, he raised the bar to 50 million and achieved 37. In the third year he upped the ante to 100 million users and achieved 111 million. While traditional MBO would have punished him for missing his goals, OKRs rewarded him for aspirational objectives and the effort made. I wonder what Messrs. Taylor and Drucker would say about that?

Agile also sits at the top of the list of modern methodologies to ignite aspiration. While Agile is known as the project management standard for software development, its real benefit is that it promotes aspiration. Instead of command and control, Agile is a democratic process which brings all stakeholders together to review the (everchanging) work priorities, then collectively decide what can be accomplished before the next meeting. Agile is now gaining adoption across a range of industries, from agricultural equipment to jet fighters. And with good reason, as it facilitates radical breakthroughs, delivers innovations and optimizes cross-functional solutions. When given the authority to set their own goals, teams become aspirational and explore what is possible. 

Finally, a wonderful example of success from encouraging aspiration rather than managing results comes from Mikaela Shiffrin, the most decorated American alpine skier in history. In an interview a few weeks ago as we start another season during which she could set many all-time records, she said, “I don't need that to feel like I accomplished everything in the sport. I just want to keep improving.” She, with encouragement from her coach Kirk Dwyer, approaches the sport like an artist aiming for perfection while knowing it can never be achieved. The excitement and enduring motivation comes from the practice of exploring her limits. says Dwyer. Results apparently follow. We wish you the best this season, Mikaela.

Based in the San Francisco Bay area, Chris Morgan is founding principal of Morgan Alexander, a consulting firm that coaches senior management teams to lead winning organizations, and co-founder of ListenTool. He is one of a few executive coaches with more than 20 years of experience, having started with The Alexander Corporation. Morgan’s clients are primarily CXO engagements with Fortune 500 companies, and high-tech startups in the San Francisco Bay area.

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