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Goal Congruence: Align With Who You Are
Businesspeople can fire off the definition of goal congruence with ease — it’s the alignment of individual goals with the goals of an organization. And no one can really argue against it, because employee-company alignment simply makes sense.
Why? Because congruence is a fancy word for ‘least resistance.’ There is no friction between teams and departments when their goals are in sync. Everyone is clear on their objectives and the direction of the business, and their actions reflect that understanding.
I often think about the idea of congruence on a personal level. Looking at ourselves closely, we aren’t dissimilar to a business or organization. We are made up of moving parts. Our physical being can fall out of alignment with our mental, emotional and spiritual selves.
When we are in congruence, however — when our various parts are connected and working together — we find the space of least resistance. And when we break this process down, it’s simpler than you might think.
Let’s talk about it.
We All Have Implicit Motives
I started down this congruence rabbit hole after reading a fascinating study published in 2017: “Enhancing Congruence between Implicit Motives and Explicit Goal Commitments.” It was a controlled study of German students; the idea was to see if increasing goal congruence improved well-being.
But we’ve got a few terms to sort out before I go further.
First, we need to understand what it means to have implicit motives. You’ll find an excellent breakdown here, but the idea is this: implicit motives are the unconscious drives or proclivities that lead us to take action. We might be motivated by a desire for power, autonomy, intimacy, or achievement — and these can all work in harmony with our conscious goals.
Explicit goal commitments, on the other hand, are those goals we’ve set for ourselves consciously. They’re often career-oriented: what job do I want? What salary am I aiming for? How will I get there? But we set these goals across all walks of life.
When both sets of goals (implicit and explicit) align in congruence, it creates a strong sense of identity and clarity of purpose. We know what we want, and why we’re doing it.
Congruency in Practice
Since a lot of these terms come straight from psych theory, it’s hard to picture exactly what I’m talking about. So let’s bring it back to the everyday.
Take a moment and consider your life right now. Do you wake up in the morning with enthusiasm, or dread? Are you doing what comes naturally to you? Are there any areas of your life where things don’t quite fit together — like pieces of a jigsaw that just won’t go into place?
As humans, we tend to lean more toward one of three implicit motives: power, affiliation, or achievement. We develop these in the very early stages of our development. Maybe your childhood was particularly turbulent, so you’ve leaned into power as a way of protecting yourself. Or maybe your parents were particularly nurturing, so you’ve found solace in affiliation.
Whatever the case, these implicit motives form the foundation of who we are and what drives us forward. Now, imagine your main implicit motive is affiliation or intimacy. You’re going to be best suited to a job where you can nurture and help others — and therefore, the most congruent career goal you can set is one that gives you the opportunity to do just that.
Why We Misalign
It’s fair to ask — if our implicit motives are so integral to us as people, why don’t we always align our explicit goals with them?
The answer is simple: we form implicit and explicit motives at different stages. Explicit motives are much more affected by the way we’re socialized; the societal pressures we feel, the stories we hear, and the beliefs we internalize.
So imagine you’re someone who deeply values control. You gravitate toward problem-solving, autonomy, and a sense of mastery. But since you were a child, you’ve been told that the only way to guarantee success is to become a lawyer or an accountant — so that’s what you set out to do.
The issue here is obvious. Even though these are noble professions — and people can absolutely thrive in them — they require completely different skill sets than those inherent within problem-solving and control-oriented careers. You’re not even starting from the same place as someone who has chosen their career consciously with congruence in mind.
(Keep in mind that we can talk about any aspect of life when it comes to congruence. I’m just using career paths as the most obvious example.)
Why Do We Need Congruence?
I hate putting any human in a box, and sometimes, topics like this can feel a bit prescriptive. Of course, there will be control-oriented people who are drawn to the medical field or affiliate-oriented people who thrive in a WFH job.
What research has suggested, though, is that — for the most part — people who align their goals with their implicit motives are going to experience more satisfaction.
Put very simply, it’s because our implicit motives determine what success and happiness mean to us in different situations. Studies by Brunstein, Schultheiss, and Grassmann, among others, can back this up. An achievement-oriented person is going to find satisfaction in the completion of a task, while an affiliate-oriented person may find the same level of satisfaction in being part of a team.
Think of these motives as the compass for how you measure success in different aspects of your life. The compass was set a long time ago. It’s not moving. What you need to do is orient your goals in the same direction.
If you don’t, the risk is that you run out of resources — both physically and emotionally — to continue pursuing your goals. We’ve only got a limited amount of energy. Research shows that incongruent goals will drain our resources, while congruent ones energize us.
Finding Your Motives
The interesting thing about implicit motives is that they’re unconscious. You don’t decide what to value more or less — you just do, and it stems right back to your childhood experiences.
But psychologists — as they do — have been brainstorming ways to measure and understand these unconscious motives. One of the most popular methods is the Pang & Schultheiss Picture-Story Exercise (PSE), where you’re asked to construct stories based on different images. The themes that come up in the stories give an indication of what you value in life.
Then there’s the trial and error approach. I think this is what most of us spend our lives doing; we try a relationship or a job or a hobby, and if it doesn’t fit our motives, it becomes clear pretty quickly. We’re drained, and unfulfilled, and we’re itching to try something else.
I’m guessing you’ve pursued your fair share of goals at this point. What I suggest is that you take out an old-fashioned pen and paper, and sit down to reflect using these prompts:
Of the goals you’ve set for yourself over the years (personal, business, relationship, etc), which energized you? Which took effort, but became second-nature after a while?
Are there any common themes between those goals?
Which goals made you feel drained, uninspired, or pressured?
What do those goals have in common?
You’ll quickly find out that — despite our unconsciousness — we do have motives that affect which goals work out and which don’t.
For example, you might realize through this exercise that all of your people-based goals were the ones that energized you, while all of your recognition-based goals were the ones that drained you. Every time you worked to strengthen a relationship, you found it not only enriching but motivating. It’d be fairly safe to assume that your main implicit motive is affiliation.
Aligning the Goals You Set
Once you understand what success and happiness mean to you, setting goals becomes much simpler. You won’t be wasting energy on something that isn’t congruent with who you are.
Because that’s what incongruency does — it wastes your resources.
In the study of German students I mentioned early on in the piece, it was found that the more these students were educated on their implicit motives, the more their goal congruency increased. Their satisfaction indicators increased as a direct result.
The Bottom Line
At its heart, goal congruence isn’t a new concept. It’s just reminding us to stay true to ourselves while also striving for what we want out of life. When you can align your goals with your implicit motives, you’re going to experience higher levels of satisfaction due to an efficient use of resources both physical and emotional.
I’m setting myself a goal in 2023 to spend a lot more time in self-reflection about the past goals I’ve set. I think it can tell us a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Goals are rarely easy to meet, but there’s such a thing as too much resistance; it usually means we need to step back, re-assess, and re-align.
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Thank you for reading,