Nine Ways to Motivate Employees When You Don’t Set the Goals (Fosters Engagement)

Photo: Pixabay/geralt


Julia slammed her laptop shut and slumped over her desk.

“Ugh! What are they thinking? My team’s gonna hate this!”

We had just sat down to discuss her goals when the email arrived from her regional manager. The email listed sales goals she and her team were expected to meet…goals from headquarters that neither she nor her team had any input into.


Whether you are a team leader, a mid-manager, or even the President, CEO, or Executive Director there will be times in your career where you are asked to meet goals that you did not speak into or, in some cases, even disagree with.

As Julia noted, people often react negatively when they have goals ‘shoved down their throats’ – goals that may have been set by people who may not have all the facts and didn’t ask for input.

The good news is that you and your team can still thrive in these situations – there are ways to motivate your employees when you don’t set the goals.


  1. Remember that you don’t actually motivate anyone.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but the key idea is that your responsibility is to create conditions that allow employees to thrive. The first step in motivating employees is to remember that you can’t actually motivate anyone.

  1. Take Responsibility – Don’t Pass the Buck

Let’s begin with what NOT to do.

In these situations, the very worst thing you can possibly do is walk into your team meeting and say, “Those clueless jerks gave us these goals and I guess we’re stuck with them.”

These kind of statements are leadership suicide.

They kill your credibility, disempower you and your team, and make your team wonder who they should be talking to, if not you.

Even if you’re not fond of the goals, as the team leader, you’ve signed up to take responsibility and do everything you can to help the organization and your team succeed.

Do not shirk this responsibility. Own it.

  1. Be Transparent

While you don’t want to act like a victim nor encourage victim-thinking in your team, it is also okay to acknowledge the situation.

Your goal is to limit blame and fault-finding, but be up front about where things are.

If the goals are difficult, say so. Remember, the most important currency you have with your team is their trust.

If the team is clearly feeling that the situation is unfair or challenging, it is okay to voice those feelings for the team. Eg: “You may be feeling that this is tough or even a little unfair, and I get that.”

  1. Believe

Your team needs to hear you voice your belief in what is possible.

This is the “vision” work of leadership – picture your team succeeding and let them know their own potential.

“Yes, these are difficult goals and I know you haven’t done anything like this before, but I also believe we are up to the challenge. In fact, this will be the most significant achievement we do together.” (Use words that are natural for you and resonate with your team.)

  1. Help

This is where you really begin to shine as a leader.

Rather than, “These are your goals, go figure it out and stop your complaining…”

Try, “This will be our greatest achievement…AND, I will be with you each step of the way. I’m committed to helping all of us succeed together.”

Your message is clear: you are there for your team, you will help them succeed, and you’re in the boat with them (not standing on the side of the river telling them to paddle harder).

Then, once you’ve figured out your strategy (step 6), make sure your team members have the equipment, the skills, and the training they need to succeed (for more, see step 7 – Advocate.)

Ask: what do you need to succeed with this solution? Sometimes it may be as easy as changing the deadline on another project where you have discretion.

  1. Own the Problem

“Top down” goals are difficult because people feel disempowered. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that people disengage and motivation drops when they don’t feel autonomy – a sense that they have control over their own fate.

Your job as a leader is to restore some of that power.

You may not have had input into the goals, but as a team, you can have full ownership over how you will accomplish them.

This is the time for brainstorming, problem solving, for asking the critical empowering question:

“How can we solve this problem?”

List the ideas, have a healthy discussion, and make sure everyone on the team speaks into the options before they make a final decision.

As you settle on specific strategies and tactics, make sure to leverage individual’s strengths. Get people working out of their natural talents and energies wherever possible.

By helping the team to own the solution, you have restored some of their power (and their motivation!)

This is the most powerful of all the ways to motivate your employees when you don’t set the goals.

  1. Advocate

Part of your responsibility as a leader is to advocate for your team, department, or organization.

There are two key areas where you can work for your team:

1) Actively managing up and getting as much information about why goals were set the way they were. Get the facts you may not be aware of. The more information you can share with your team, the better. Also, take the opportunity to share any facts the decision-makers may not be aware of – be sure to share it in a way that will help them with their needs and goals.

2) Get your team the training and equipment it needs to do its job well.  Be pleasantly persistent. We are all easily distracted and squeaky wheels do get grease.

Note: you will not always succeed in changing the decision-making process or getting your team every last bit of training they need, but:

  • Any bit of training or equipment you do get will definitely help.
  • Your credibility with your team will grow. When they know you ‘have their back’ and are speaking on their behalf, they are more willing to trust the final decisions.
  • Your credibility in the organization will grow. As you help your supervisors or headquarters to be more effective, your own reputation benefits. Over time, you will gain more opportunity to speak into the goal-setting process.
  1. Do It

Whatever strategy your team developed – do it! Become it’s biggest champion. Remind everyone of their potential, the process, their input into the decision, and then execute.

The decision has been made, hold yourself and the team accountable for implementation.

Nothing succeeds like success. -Alexandre Dumas

  1. Celebrate

When your team accomplishes something uncommon – make a big deal!

Thank the individuals for their efforts. Celebrate the team effort together. Fly the flag and let your own supervisors / headquarters know what they did and how they did it.

Just don’t waste all that fabulous effort and problem solving by ignoring it. Celebrate the things you want more of!


When you have goals thrust upon you, it may not feel good initially, but it is also one of the greatest opportunities you have to increase your influence and grow in your leadership.

What are your ways to motivate your employees when you don’t set the goals?

I would love for you to leave a comment or hit reply and let me know!

Be the leader you want your boss to be,


David Dye, President of Let’s Grow Leaders, works with leaders to achieve transformational results without losing their soul (or mind) in the process. As a former executive and elected official and nonprofit executive he inspires audiences with practical leadership inspiration you can use right away. The award-winning author of The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul, David is a sought-after leadership speaker, and believes everyone can master the essentials of influence.