When you first give up a corporate job to launch a startup, the profound sense of freedom and autonomy feels exhilarating. But in amongst your future projections and long-term vision, your business plan and budget, sits a noticeable gaping hole.

You suddenly have no corporate infrastructure pushing you and your team on a day by day basis to get the job done and you now have to motivate your employees all by yourself. How do you set the right goals to keep your team on track? 

Your behavior is the result of both conscious and subconscious goals.

You might think your behavior is guided by the goals you are consciously setting for yourself, but it's not.

While you're setting your goals, your brain is setting its own, subconscious goals from signals or "cues" it detects in its environment. 

Your team's performance is shaped by these hidden cues -- their  behavior is only partly the result of the goals you set. 

Instead, their performance reflects the net interaction between their conscious and subconscious goals. This effect was strikingly demonstrated in a study published last year. 

Even subtle cues make a big difference to performance.

For the study, 616 adults of various educational and professional backgrounds were recruited for free online Microsoft Word training through an advertisement posted on Google. They were trained through ten modules, progressing from basic to advanced.

At the start of each module, they were given a goal, which related to how much time they should spend reviewing the material and the number of questions they should aim to correctly answer in the exam at the end. The goal was easy, neutral or difficult.

During each module, they were shown a small, inconspicuous image on the corner of their slides. Some of the images were of "achievement" -- people winning, exerting effort, and striving, while others were of "underachievement" -- people appearing lazy and sluggish or slacking.

The images weren't emotionally charged or personally meaningful and the study participants hardly noticed or paid any attention to them.

Viewing the tiny image at the corner of their screen had a striking effect on their ability to reach their given goals because the images acted as a potent cue for their brains to form a subconscious goal.

  • The images showing achievement triggered a subconscious goal to achieve, so those who saw these images spent longer working on the material and did better in the tests. 
  • The images showing underachievement made participants more likely to abandon the goals they were working toward -- and their test scores were lower. 

The difficulty level of the conscious goals played a role here. Participants were less likely to abandon their conscious goals if these were difficult, rather than easy, but only if they decided on these conscious goals before the subconscious temptation to give up entered their minds.

Putting it into practice.

When you're setting goals for your team, remember these goals are competing with the subconscious goals incubating in your employees' minds.

You have no control over these subconscious goals, but you have control over the cues that trigger them.

The authors of the study suggest overcoming subconscious underachievement cues by exposing a team to motivational imagery at regular intervals throughout the day and by diligently eliminating underachievement cues in the environment.

If you're doing all you can to prime your team for achievement but something still seems to be in the way, then the source of underachievement cues may be a co-worker.

Unlike the stereotypical toxic co-worker who knowingly creates an obvious negative atmosphere, a co-worker issuing cues for underachievement may be doing so quite innocently.

Extrapolating from the observations in the study, they may be a pleasant colleague, who does nothing more than merely  "appear" lazy and sluggish. 

Taking action.

As team leader it is difficult to chastise a colleague for such a benign offense, but it would appear from this study that such seemingly benign behavior can have a detrimental effect on goals and performance.

The study's results also suggest that priming your team with difficult goals might help to offset any underachievement cues coming from the environment, but these goals have to be in place before your employees are exposed to the underachievement cues.

In practice, this might mean diligently priming your team with messages encouraging hard-to-reach goals the moment they step into the office in the morning, before they've had a chance to watch their lethargic co-worker slouch in their chair. 

Control the plot of your story by controlling the scenery that frames it.

As a leader, you are writing a story for your employees to follow. To orchestrate your story, you have to set the scene. You need to control the characters, emotions and suggestions that surround them at any one time -- even a small change in their surroundings can make a big difference.