What motivates people to attain their goals? That’s a big question without a silver bullet, one-size-fits-all answer. Goals and people vary and we all have our own individual learning styles and motivators. Sometimes a goal lights a fire within us and we strive hard to achieve it. Other times, a goal may intimidate us so we just give up.

What is it about different goals that generate such different responses? Research shows that how we structure goals can make a big difference. To understand how this works, let’s take a look at the game of basketball.

The halftime effect

Wharton Psychology Professor Jonah Berger and Behavioral Economist Devin Pope analyzed over 20,000 NBA games to try to answer the goal-setting question. Because games are standardized and the goal is always the same – to score more points – they were able to compare which teams were the most motivated by their halftime score.

For the most part, the results were as you’d expect: The further ahead a team was at halftime, the more likely they were to win. But it gets interesting when you look at teams who were down at halftime. Teams who were down by two or more points were more likely to lose but teams who found themselves down by only one point at the half were 8% more likely to win.

When the gap was just one point, it lit a fire within the losing players and motivated them to try harder. “Being behind our ideal trajectory can motivate us to work harder,” Berger explained in his book Invisible Influence.

Yet, as revealed by the fact that teams losing by more than a few points tended to lose, the so-called “halftime effect” requires careful balance.

“Being behind our ideal trajectory can motivate us to work harder.” – Jonah Berger, psychology professor and bestselling author of Invisible Influence

Berger and Pope tested this principle further by having students play video games. Each student was separated from the others and didn’t know their opponent’s scores until researchers told them at halftime. Students who were told they were ahead continued at the same output. Students who were told they were very far behind tended to give up. However, students told they were just a few points behind their opponents tripled their effort.

What can we learn from these experiments about how to motivate teams? One, that tantalizingly attainable goals can motivate individuals to try 3x as hard. And two, even more importantly for motivation to kick in, people have to know the score.

Motivation and performance only work if they’re continuous

For goals to motivate employees, the feedback has to be continuous. When reviews are infrequent – say, once per year, which is the case for 3 out of 4 businesses – it’s like telling everyone their score after the game is over.

Here, managers and leaders can learn a lesson from good sports coaches. The best coaches prioritize player improvement over winning games. They’d rather see players work hard to continually improve aspects of their team and individual performance than see them focus all-out on winning. Players can control their own effort and motivation but they can’t always control the outcome of the game. Good coaches are involved in every practice session, giving players frequent feedback so they can continually tweak their runs, plays, and passes.

“Good coaches are involved in every practice session, giving players frequent feedback and they are continually tweaking their runs, plays, and passes.”

This works just as well in business. When feedback is continuous, employees are never more than one point behind at the half – keeping motivation and effort high. If you keep goals attainable and feedback continuous, you avoid the paralyzing “I just give up” reaction. Managers also can’t forget to also celebrate the wins – employees need recognition when they reach their goal.

A program of continuous performance management encapsulates all the positive effects of good coaching. It’s a process where managers have frequent development conversations with employees where they give feedback, praise, and set new, attainable goals together.

Not surprisingly, HR expert Josh Bersin estimates that 70 percent of multinational companies are moving toward performance management that’s continuous. In a blog post on HR disruptions, Bersin wrote, “The answer is now clear: Continuous performance management is possible, it works, and it can transform your company. We are not talking about doing away with ratings, rather we are talking about building a new, ongoing process for goal setting, coaching, evaluation, and feedback.”

Establishing attainable goals with continuous coaching maximizes motivation. To get great performance from your team, they need continuous feedback so they can continuously improve.

Want to see your team hustle? See how BetterWorks can upgrade how you coach and develop your entire teams.