Goal-gradients and motivation - The OKRs Owl part 4/4

Goal-gradients and motivation - The OKRs Owl part 4/4

Goal-gradients are a nice motivational approach based on behavioural science that can really benefit your OKR progress.
OKR owl in a chair

In the final blog of our OKRs Owl series, we explore goal-gradients and how they can impact motivation. The easiest way to understand the science behind goal-gradients is through the power of coffee!

The ‘Goal Gradient Effect’ is a theory that suggests as people get closer to a reward, they speed up their behaviour to get to their goal faster.

For example, if you have a loyalty card for your favourite coffee shop, it’s proven that you’re likely to buy more coffee as you get closer to your reward. Who doesn’t love a free coffee?

In fact, this principle can apply to all areas of incentivisation, including how you motivate your team (hint: you’ll need more than free coffee!)

Here we’ll delve into the Science behind goal-gradients and explore how they can help you engage and motivate your team.

The science of motivation

Before you explore why and when to incentivise your team, you’ll need to understand what is likely to work best. Each individual may be motivated by different rewards: for example, some may prioritise financial rewards, whilst others might thrive on recognition.

It’s important to work with each team member and understand:

  • What drives them
  • Their current state of satisfaction and motivation
  • What causes them to lose motivation
  • Their personal ambitions as well as their career goals

Once you know what makes each person strive for success, you can begin to design your rewards. 

Motivating the team

According to research conducted by Dr Edwin Locke and Dr Gary Latham, five elements are needed in order for us to achieve our goals:

  1. Clarity
  2. Challenge
  3. Commitment
  4. Feedback
  5. Task complexity

In traditional Waterfall environments, teams often suffer from a bit of a tunnel effect. This means they may work on pieces of functionality in isolation from their peers or the wider business. 

In fact, they may never see the completed project or feel its impact on the business, stakeholders, clients or end-users. This can be very demotivating and is often the reason why team members leave their role. It’s also often why projects slow down or fail to achieve success.

In an Agile team, everyone has visibility of the company’s goals and progress. The team shares triumphs and failures, and sees the latter as an opportunity to learn. This is motivating because every team member can see the light at the end of the tunnel, which makes the goal feel closer.

Aside from compensatory rewards, one of the best ways to motivate your team is by giving them visibility, recognition and autonomy. 

This means:

  • Sharing the company goals
  • Updating people when goals change or customer-needs shift
  • Giving context of how the team’s work impacts company goals
  • Allowing teams to come up with their own solutions to company challenges
  • Receiving regular feedback from stakeholders and customers
  • Celebrating achievements and progress before moving on to the next thing

Fail fast

If your team is terrified of failure, they may be reluctant to try 

The science behind goal-gradients focuses on achieving the goal, but it’s equally important to understand and discuss what happens if you don’t. 

Sometimes trying and failing is the best way to achieve a better outcome in the end. We’ve talked before about the importance of psychologically safe work environments to create high performing teams. These teams aren’t afraid of failure and have a shared sense of belonging and support, which in turn leads to motivation.

Sometimes the blocker stopping your team from performing isn’t motivation, it’s fear. 

It’s very important to analyse your team culture and be honest about how they perceive success and failure. Sometimes a safe environment with support, visibility and recognition are enough of a reward to motivate your team to complete their project with success.

The goal-gradient effect

So, back to the science behind goal-gradients. It was the behavioural scientist Clark Hull who created the concept of a Goal Gradient Effect in 1932. He proved that “Rats in a maze run faster as they near the food box than at the beginning of the path.”

We see evidence of the goal-gradient effect in other areas of life too. For example, gamification is one of the most popular digital tools for motivating and rewarding staff and clients. 

TripAdvisor implemented gamification with success through their reviewer badge programme. As reviewers get closer to their next “level up”, TripAdvisor encourages them with pop-up messaging: 


This is a sure-fire way to inspire the reviewer to write just one more review to reach their target, perhaps immediately after seeing the message. No doubt the first few reviews took longer to complete because their motivation was lower when starting out.

Using goal-gradients to motivate your team and customers

So how do you tangibly use goal-gradients to motivate your team or customers?

For your team:

  • Visibility; avoid the tunnel effect
  • Recognition and rewards at the start, middle and end of a project
  • Find out what motivates each individual, don’t make assumptions
  • Autonomy is key
  • Don’t be afraid to fail

For customers:

  • Loyalty programmes that intensify as the customer becomes more loyal
  • Reward schemes (your version of the coffee loyalty card)
  • Visibility of your company goals and vision (bring them on the journey)
  • Don’t be afraid to share failures with customers, as long as you learn from them
  • Talk to your customers regularly, not just when you want to sell to them
OKR owl with books

Have you seen the other parts in the series?

The OKRs Owl series are 4 posts themed around introducing OKRs to your business. Here are the other parts:

  1. Practical examples of OKRs
  2. How to get started with OKRs
  3. How to measure OKRs
  4. Goal-gradients and motivation (that's this one!)

How can Just3Things help?

Having a clear vision, and then communicating it to the whole company has been crucial to the spectacular rise of many of the world's biggest companies. 

OKRs are a goal-setting framework that help you to set, prioritise, track and deliver goals that link to your vision and strategy.

It can be broken down into two simple questions:

  1. Where do I want to go? 
  2. How will I know when I have got there?

Our market-leading OKRs software provides the transparency, focus, and alignment required to successfully track and drive progress wherever you are. 

Get started now with a free trial to assess the value for yourself!

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