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Challenge #2: Achieving tasks

Watch the video, keep your journal handy and set aside the 10 minutes needed to complete the challenge. Good luck and we’ll be back soon with the next challenge!

Let's take a look at the science...

Research by Robertson Cooper on the key factors that help people to have a Good Days at Work has identified four main elements – positive emotions, achieving tasks, feeling connected and performing meaningful work. Each individual element has an important role to play so it’s worth looking at the scientific research that reveals the importance of each element. The information below focuses on the research related to achieving tasks.

Achieving tasks at work

The sense of achievement and mastery that people experience from reaching a goal is an important contributor to overall wellbeing and psychological health. Being able to reach work goals successfully is one of the key ingredients in experiencing a Good Day at Work. Spending a day at work and feeling that you have achieved nothing, or very little, will damage rather than lift wellbeing.

Task achievement and happiness

There is a positive relationship between psychological wellbeing and work performance. A wide range of different studies carried out around the world (Europe, USA, Asia-Pacific) all reach the same conclusion – that in the workplace better performance and better psychological health go hand in hand (Salgado & Moscoso, 2022); so, when wellbeing is high, achievement is better – leading to higher levels of satisfaction and wellbeing which, in turn, are linked to more achievement. A virtuous circle that any organisation would be happy to see. Positive achievements at work provide a setting for workers to flourish and develop more effectively, which brings benefits to both the organisation and the individual employee.

The positive relationship between achievement at work and happiness at work is important in many ways. In fact, although at first it may sound contradictory, achievements at work may be a better route to experiencing Good Days at Work than seeking happiness directly. Broadly psychological wellbeing may be divided into two main parts: Hedonic and Eudaimonic (Ryan & Deci, 2001). Hedonic happiness is based on experiences of pleasure and enjoyment; Eudaimonic happiness is derived through experiences that have meaning and purpose for the individual. So, in the workplace Hedonic happiness occurs when something pleasurable is happening. There’s nothing wrong with having fun in the workplace but in reality, most people feel at their best at work when they have achieved something; and the more challenging the goal the better it feels. In other words, the Eudaimonic route to happiness is more effective than the Hedonic. Research findings support this conclusion and there is evidence that striving to be happy for its own sake (hedonism) generally does not work but pursuing purposeful and meaningful activities does improve wellbeing (Sheldon et al., 2019). The simple message here is that taking on work tasks that seem worthwhile is likely to make you feel happier than just trying to have fun at work!

Goal setting and achievement

Achieving goals either at work or elsewhere provides a sense of satisfaction and mastery that boosts self-efficacy, confidence, and wellbeing. What this suggests is that it is important to structure work tasks and the environment in a way that enables workers to set and reach goals. There is a large body of research on the role of goals and goal setting and there are some very clear principles about the most effective goals (Locke & Latham, 2019). First and foremost, goals need to be specific. When people are given specific goals, they routinely perform better than people given a vague objective and told to do their best. The most useful goals in the workplace are also challenging, rather than easy and workers need to have the ability to achieve the goal. Challenging, difficult goals are more effective at work because they lead to better performance, and they also provide a greater sense of satisfaction for the employees. Working toward specific challenging goals can help employees to focus and will usually elicit higher levels of motivation. Focusing on the goal provides a purpose, a sense of challenge, and, when the goal is reached, feelings of accomplishment.

Making goal setting effective

Of course, simply throwing a set of specific difficult goals at workers is not enough and won’t be likely to produce either the best performance or high levels of satisfaction. There are several factors that moderate the effectiveness of goal setting, and they also have an impact on both the achievements and sense of satisfaction that employees experience.

If employees are committed to a goal, they are more likely to work hard to reach it and derive more satisfaction from achieving it; so, the benefits of goal commitment apply to both workers and their organisations. High levels of performance pay-off for the organisation and the benefits for employees go beyond the satisfaction of reaching their work goals and may include better pay, promotion and better prospects.

It makes sense that people will be more committed to goals that they value and find important. It also seems more likely that people will be more motivated by goals that they have set (or helped to set). Of course, it’s simply not possible to allow everyone in a workplace to set and work towards their own goals but there is no doubt that when workers see the point of a task and value the outcome, they will be more committed to it and more likely to feel good about achieving it. Everyone in a workplace brings their own set of skills and knowledge and research shows that when people are assigned tasks that make use of their strengths, they are more likely to focus better on the task and derive more satisfaction from completing it (Liu et al., 2022).

Actually, the evidence that participatively set goals are better is not entirely straightforward. Participation itself is not the key to better performance. Workers who participate in the setting of their work goals perform better because they get a better understanding of the goal requirements and develop clearer ideas about how to achieve them (Locke & Latham, 2019). In other words, the benefits of participation in goal setting are cognitive (i.e., giving employees better knowledge), rather than motivational. So, participation in goal setting is useful because it gives people a clearer view of the goals and how to reach them.

It’s not that unusual in work settings to find people who feel that at least some of the tasks they are meant to achieve are pointless or at least not very important. When this happens, it will inevitably damage both motivation and satisfaction. Some degree of participation in setting the tasks and the specific goals required will be helpful in uncovering any concerns that employees have about the value or benefit of the goals they are set. Sometimes, the fact that certain tasks seem utterly pointless is news to supervisors and managers! Of course, it may be that the tasks are relevant and useful, but the employee can’t see why. Discussion of the goals and their purpose should help to clarify.

There are other important things that have an impact on what people can achieve at work. Feedback about performance is important, whether the goal is successfully reached or not. If the goal is achieved, then positive feedback will add to the sense of satisfaction and wellbeing. If there are shortcomings, accurate, specific feedback about what these were and how they might be overcome will be more likely to bring better results next time than criticism or no feedback. The importance of feedback can’t really be overstated – imagine playing tennis and hitting the ball across the net but not being able to see where it landed!

It’s unreasonable to expect workers to reach difficult specific goals if they don’t have the necessary skills, knowledge and resources to carry out the required tasks. There is also a good deal of evidence to show that people are much happier carrying out their jobs if they have control over how to go about things (van der Doef & Maes, 1999). This doesn’t mean that goals are not firm or clear, but it does mean that people work better if they can carry out the work in the way that they think best.

Enabling people to achieve at work

Sometimes goals can actually get in the way and spoil Good Days at Work. Common problems with goals in the workplace have been mentioned earlier. If goals are not specific enough, so that the target is very clear, then performance and goal accomplishment will be damaged – and so will the benefits of eudaimonic wellbeing. As also noted above, feedback is a key ingredient in effective goal setting and achievement. Some feedback may come from the task itself and if the goal is sufficiently clear, the extent to which it has been reached may be obvious. Usually, it will also be helpful to have feedback from other people. Feedback from others is beneficial in two ways; first, if the goal has been successfully reached it will boost the feelings of satisfaction. If there are shortcomings, then developmental feedback, providing clarity about the shortfall and an indication of how improvements can be made is much more effective than criticism.

A further problem with the tasks that people are expected to achieve in many work settings is conflict between different goals. When there are multiple tasks to be achieved, they need to be complementary and compatible. Conflicting goals can arise in a number of ways. For example, pursuing two different goals may be incompatible, “Be more assertive with customers”, and “Make sure customers get what they want.” These requirements lack specificity, and they may also be impossible to achieve together. Conflict can also arise because of resource constraints, “Make sure this job is completed on time” and “Don’t agree to any additional overtime”.

There is clear evidence that working with conflicting goals damages wellbeing (Gray et al., 2017) and allowing workers some freedom of manoeuvre, so that they can renegotiate or set aside some goals is important from a psychological health and a performance perspective. Being able to disengage from a goal provides an important release valve that enables a rethink and re-evaluation of priorities (Hajek & König, 2021). Unfortunately, in many workplaces goals are set and even though there is a lack of specificity, conflict or lack of goal attainment, the goals remain in place and there is widespread recognition that they will not be achieved.

In a healthy workplace the tasks that employees are expected to achieve are set after discussion, they are clear, their purpose is apparent and seen as valuable, they are not conflicting and make as much use as possible of each individual worker’s strengths. When this is the case employees will be motivated to set about their tasks and will be able to derive a good sense of achievement and happiness from doing their work – they will be more likely to have a Good Day at Work!

Key sources

  • Gray, J. S., Ozer, D. J., & Rosenthal, R. (2017). Goal conflict and psychological well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Personality, 66, 27–37. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2016.12.003
  • Hajek, A., & König, H. H. (2021). Flexible goal adjustment moderates the link between self-rated health and subjective well-being. Findings from the general population. Aging and Mental Health, 25(7). https://doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2020.1765313
  • Liu, W., van der Linden, D., & Bakker, A. B. (2022). Does Strengths Use Mean Better Focus? Well-being and Attentional Performance at the Episodic Level. Journal of Happiness Studies, 23(6), 2763–2785. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-022-00522-5
  • Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2019). The development of goal setting theory: A half century retrospective. Motivation Science, 5(2), 93–105. https://doi.org/10.1037/mot0000127
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141–166. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.141
  • Salgado, J. F., & Moscoso, S. (2022). Cross-cultural Evidence of the Relationship between Subjective Well-being and Job Performance: A Meta-analysis. Revista de Psicología Del Trabajo y de Las Organizaciones, 38(1). https://doi.org/10.5093/jwop2022a3
  • Sheldon, K. M., Corcoran, M., & Prentice, M. (2019). Pursuing Eudaimonic Functioning Versus Pursuing Hedonic Well-Being: The First Goal Succeeds in Its Aim, Whereas the Second Does Not. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20(3). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-018-9980-4
  • van der Doef, M., & Maes, S. (1999). The Job Demand-Control(-Support) model and psychological well-being: A review of 20 years of empirical research. Work and Stress. https://doi.org/10.1080/026783799296084