From Theory To Action: Achievement Goal Theory and Your Unrelenting Pursuit of Excellence

Professor Martin Jones and Garry Banford
5 min read
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What is Achievement Goal Theory?


Gaz: The twin towers attack in 2001 was my kick up the arse to volunteer for Special Forces Selection. That abhorrent terrorist act which killed thousands of innocent people, allowed me to see through the size of the challenge in the UK Special Forces Selection. I had only ever heard complete horror stories about the difficulty of the process and the massive failure rates (greater than 95%), but my new found motivation fuelled me to try regardless. I just had to try!


Martin: Achievement goal theory (AGT) is a psychological framework that you can use to describe and understand the different ways people pursue goals. AGT is one of many motivational theories developed by psychologists and educationalists to understand the direction and intensity of our efforts.


AGT has its roots in both sports and education. Researchers in these domains observed two main types of achievement goals: ego and task goals. In this newsletter, we will discuss these goals and how you can use them to improve your productivity.


In both cases (i.e., ego and task), we want to understand how we evaluate ourselves. This is sometimes known as our concept of competence. To illustrate this point, we could take two cyclists and ask them whether they are competent at cycling, and then importantly, ask them where this concept of competence comes from. One cyclist may tell you they are capable because they consistently beat their cycling partner up the hills. The other cyclist (the one who is always second on the climbs) also believes they are competent, but they define their competence because they are better at climbing today than last month. These two perceptions illustrate the two main achievement goals - ego and task.


Not all researchers use the same terms.In this article, I will use ego and task, but some researchers replace these labels with related terms. For example, ego and task achievement goals could be replaced by performance and mastery, fixed and growth, or entity and incremental. Regardless of the label, the core similarity is whether the person defines their competence based on how they compare with others vs whether they are improving based on their previous level of achievement.


Gaz: I remember turning up on day one of the Special Forces Selection process. You arrive and are briefed in a large dining area. As the chief Instructor spoke, I looked around the room to (I realise now) compare myself in my mind with all the other 200 volunteers. Everybody there seemed more experienced than me, fitter than me, and more prepared than me. I knew that I had to focus on what I could do, and the first challenge was a standard Combat Fitness Test the very next morning, which is a long speed march carrying a heavy load on your back.


This test hurt! The first half of it was run much faster than I had ever run one of them before, which must have been to attempt to weed out some of the less gritty students.  It wasn’t until that evening when I saw on the student noticeboard that we had already lost 15-20 other volunteers. I couldn’t believe it! At the time, my mind said, “Maybe I’m better prepared than I thought”.  


Martin: Achievement goal theorists hold that, when performing achievement-related tasks, individuals can fluctuate in their state of involvement (I.e., the motivation at the moment) toward a task or ego goals. That is, they can be more or less task- and ego-involved at any point during task engagement. At a broader level, people have the disposition to be more or less ego or task oriented. That is, they are generally more likely to be more ego vs task across most situations.


The final construct that AGT discuss is motivational climate. The motivational climate is the conditions that can drive people toward a particular state of involvement. The climate is typically caused by leader behaviour or organisational structure. For example, a teacher that ranks students in order of performance creates an ego climate. If one of the students has an ego orientation in that ego climate, it's highly likely that, at that moment, the student will have an ego involvement.


If the same teacher creates a climate that rewards efforts and cooperation, that same ego-orientated student could reveal a task involvement. Motivational involvement is therefore predicted by the interaction of the orientation of the individual and the climate in which they operate.


Gaz: One of my first impressions, after I was successful with Special Forces selection with my SF Unit, was the difference in culture around leadership responsibility with that of my former organisation. Within my new unit, I was immediately given leadership responsibility.  Now it was relatively basic. I was placed in charge of my immediate team’s optics box. This box contained all our night vision goggles, viewing aids and spare weapon sights. Whilst small as a task, it was big in responsibility as this equipment was valued at hundreds of thousands of pounds! Which at the time felt like a weighty responsibility.


As I understood the group dynamics, I saw that everybody had their weighty responsibilities, and the leadership teams had created them, so everybody shared the load. The load was set so that everyone could bear it despite it possibly initially feeling like a big challenge. Our leadership didn’t pit us directly against each other, though this is important. We were each given roles and responsibilities and then regularly provided feedback on how we performed, but not how well we performed compared to someone else doing the same job. The leadership's job was to keep tweaking the level of responsibility given to individuals so that everyone could develop at their own pace.


The organisation's ethos was one of the ‘unrelenting pursuit of excellence’. This was never about being better than anybody else - but always about being the best you can be! This ethos shaped a culture of continually needing to evolve and adapt based on the challenge in front of you. Ultimately, if we didn’t keep adapting, the opposition certainly would…. that is always bad news.  


Is task better than ego or vice versa?


Martin: Both types of motivational involvement are helpful at different times. Researchers have collected data on the various motivational involvements, orientations and climates and described the typical consequences of task and ego motivation.


People with a task orientation strive to improve, develop, and learn new skills. Moreover, their focus is on understanding the material and mastering it. They are not necessarily concerned with how others view them – instead, they focus on learning for themselves. In contrast, people with an ego orientation are more concerned with how others perceive them and focus on proving themselves to others. They may compete with peers to gain recognition and status.


Gaz: Asa developing leader, I knew I had to prove my value to the group to feel true belonging.  This was done by doing my best, meeting the clearly defined standards of the group and bearing some of the responsibility – making myself accountable. One way I could do this was to keep up-skilling myself.  As mentioned, one pillar of the ethos of UK Special Forces is the ‘unrelenting pursuit of excellence’. This wasn’t written on any of the walls anywhere, but it was communicated through the actions of the leaders and teammates.  Early in my leadership development, it was clear that there was no room for people to be static or stale. We always had to develop our skills and improve our standards in whatever we were doing.


Martin: It should be apparent that sometimes it's good to be ego-oriented and involved. For example, in a winner takes all competition, it makes sense that concern about where you rank against your competition will drive your behaviour (i.e., to win the contest). The problem with ego achievement goals is the recognition that, at some point, you will come up against someone better than you. If your sense of competence is based on beating your opponent, what happens when you can no longer beat your opponent? At some point, we all get beat. Even the world's greatest athletes get beaten at some point! This is where an exclusive ego goal can be counterproductive.


Gaz: Inter-group competition was a massive ingredient in our development. Our training was gamified to improve accountability and insert pressure into the mix. The competitions were most often skills-based challenges and always light-hearted. It was impossible to be the best at everything, but by exposing all these strengths and comparative weaknesses, we all understood each other so much better and had greater insight into how to organise the teams. There are certainly times to be pitted against one another, but these times are some steps through the skills acquisition phases when everyone needs to be challenged to a greater level. When some are learning new skills, it would be counter productive and bad for morale to be compared to others with significant skill mastery.


Martin: So far, we have discussed the two achievement goals as two sides of the same coin. That is, you are either one or the other. Achievement orientations are independent of one another. That means that people fall into one of four different clusters. People are either low in both (people with a lack of drive and motivation), high in ego and low in task, high in task and low in ego, or high in both ego and task.




But most high performers and elite athletes fall into the final grouping. These people have the drive to improve and master skills AND the drive to best their opponents. So, when the going gets tough, the tough fall back on their task orientation and persevere even when they get beat or receive difficult feedback.


While orientations are independent of one another, involvement (the motivation at the moment) is not. You are driven to improve or compete at a given time – you can’t be both. This is where the motivational climate is so important. If you are a person high in both task and ego, you will be pushed toward the involvement endorsed by the climate. Therefore, coaches and leaders must be careful not to undermine task-oriented people with ego climates (or vice versa when appropriate).


Gaz: As a leader, reflecting on the design of activities, the location of decision-making, the use of rewards, the selection of working groups, the assessment criteria for performance, and the pace of instruction, learning, and performance can all help leaders create optimal motivational climates for any given situation. You must think about these topics if you want to optimise your or your team’s leadership potential.




Motivational involvement is a complex concept determined by the interaction of individual orientations and environmental climates. Task orientation focuses on mastering and understanding material, while ego orientation is more concerned with proving oneself to others and gaining recognition. Ultimately, both are useful at different times, but the optimal situation lies in having both task and ego orient. It should be noted that task and ego orientation are not mutually exclusive – understanding when and how each will be useful in different situations can help maximise the performance of individuals or teams.


Leaders can create environments where people excel by understanding the complexities of achievement orientation. With that knowledge, leaders can unlock their teams’ potential. With careful and informed implementation, leaders can use an understanding of AGT to promote excellence and drive high performance. By creating teams that understand ego and task motivation and providing the right environment for them to thrive in, leaders can ensure success for their team members. That is how achievement goals shape up in the real world.

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Professor Martin Jones and Garry Banford