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This article was first published in the November/December 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Often, the difference between successful people and their less accomplished counterparts is in their attitude, how they look at themselves and the world. One example lies in the way that they motivate themselves (or others) when setting goals.

To explain, allow me to pose a hypothetical scenario. Imagine briefly that you and your colleagues are taking a course with the intention of pursuing a professional qualification. Which of the following four statements is most likely to encapsulate your motivations?

1. ‘I want to learn as much as possible about this topic.’

2. ‘I want to get a better grade than my colleagues.’

3. ‘I’m worried I won’t learn as much as I could from this course.’

4. ‘I don’t want to get a worse grade than my colleagues.’

Many psychologists agree that 

people’s motivations – not only in education but in the workplace and sports too – can broadly be classified into four categories based on two dimensions. By understanding this two-by-two classification, you can learn to set more motivating goals for both yourself and others.

One of the dimensions is called achievement focus. Some people have personal mastery goals; they look to gain competence or knowledge for its own sake or for personal benefit. In contrast, others have what I call comparative performance goals; they want to get a score, grade or result that is better than that of other people. For example, if I read a book with a personal mastery goal, I may do so because I want to learn about the subject. But if I read a book with a comparative performance goal, I may wish to demonstrate to friends or colleagues that I know more about the topic than they do.

The other dimension is based on the whether the goal is positive or negative. Positive goals are about pursuing success, while negative ones are about avoiding failure. For instance, a sales person with a positive goal might focus mainly on earning a lot of money; another sales person with a negative goal might be more interested in not performing too poorly.

Given that each dimension has two options, this gives us four broad categories of goals. Statement 1 above is a positive-personal mastery goal: it’s about wanting to get something positive out of the experience for yourself. Statement 2 is a positive-comparative performance goal: again it’s about striving for success, but this time by doing well in relation to others – there’s a desire to beat others.

Statement 3 is a negative-personal mastery goal because it is focused on the avoidance of a bad outcome. Finally, statement 4 is negative-comparative because it is about avoiding doing worse than other people. For example, a manager with a negative-comparative attitude may care more about not being in the bottom quartile in terms of performance as opposed to striving for being in the top quartile.

These may seem like trivial differences more to do with semantics than anything of consequence. However, research suggests that these subtle ways of framing goals do have quantifiably different outcomes. In general, people who set negative goals – for example, ‘I don’t want to look stupid’ or ‘We mustn’t perform poorly’ – usually achieve worse results than those who set positive ones. Interestingly, researchers led by Nico Van Yperen at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that positive goals outdo negative ones only in work and educational settings. In sports, positive goals (for example, ‘We must win’) and negative ones (‘We mustn’t lose’) achieve roughly equivalent results.

Other evidence also suggests that individuals with personal mastery goals tend to achieve better outcomes than those with comparative performance goals. Deciding to do something for your personal betterment may help you to attain a higher level of performance and achievement than worrying about how you are doing in relative terms to others.

In conclusion, positive-personal mastery goals such as ‘I want to learn as much as possible from doing this’ and ‘I want to beat my own personal best’ may be the best way to perform well and achieve better results. Whatever your professional or educational goals, aim to focus on success and what you might gain rather than worrying about failure and what you might lose. 

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace: