Striking the balance between goal setting theory and expectancy theory on linear repetitive construction projects
Linear construction projects largely consist of repetitive construction activities. Examples of linear construction projects include the construction of pipelines, roads, railways and power lines which have the same construction operations repeated along their length. Even the construction of high-rise buildings can be included in this category (Mattila & Park 2003) as they have the same activities being repeated on each floor, however in this paper we will be focusing on the infrastructure examples provided above.
In this paper I will also leverage off my experience in managing the construction of natural gas pipelines in the north west of Australia. These types of projects are usually extremely repetitive in nature as the design rarely changes along its length. When considering the workers roles in these projects, each linear meter is constructed in essentially the same way, and as a result the tasks the workers do along each linear meter is almost identical. Motivation is critical in this climate considering these projects can be hundreds of kilometers long and constructed over many months. There is evidence that repetitive tasks can benefit from some variety but that specialization and variety are mutually reinforcing strategies rather than mutually exclusive, (Staats & Gino 2012), so it is important to balance both here.
Typically this form of construction is scheduled, and therefore progress is tracked, in terms of the length completed for each activity or crew. As result management often use goal setting as the motivator for the workers where a target meterage is given to aim for each day or week. For the most repetitive roles these may be daily targets, for activities with more variance (e.g. dependent on other crews terrain/ design changes) these may be weekly targets.
This paper aims to analyse the advantages and disadvantages of using Goal Setting Theory to motivate workers in this environment and then also looks at how more contemporary theories such as Expectancy Theory and how it can be used to consider other motivators that management can use to strike the right balance with goal setting theory, in improving motivation in this environment.
What is Goal Setting Theory?
Goal Setting Theory has been considered in motivation theory since the late 1960’s when Edwin Locke proposed that individuals who set goals that were specific and difficult to achieve performed better than those who set general and easy to achieve goals (Locke 1968). He first presented the theory in a book (Locke 1990) based on 25 years of research, which included almost 500 studies comprising of a combination of his research and other peoples research. This research covered more than 40,000 people across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. In 2006 they were still reviewing “new directions” for goal setting theory (Locke & Latham 2006). Further to this they published another book in 2013 which included contributions from over 70 authors, who consider the evolution of the theory since 1990, with more than 600 additional studies conducted over that time (Locke & Latham 2013). They still concluded that so long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance.
There are four interesting mechanisms of goal setting theory discussed (Locke & Latham 2013). First is direction – that a specific high difficulty goal orients an individuals attention and effort towards activities related to achieving that goal, and away from those that the individual may consider irrelevant to achieving that goal. Secondly is effort – where effort is applied in proportion to the difficulty level of the goal. Third is persistence – where a specific difficult goal leads workers to work longer in order to achieve that goal, rather than if there was a vague or easy goal. All three of these mechanisms could lead to improved performance given our circumstances. Then there is the fourth mechanism, which can be the risk when setting high specific goals in some circumstances, it is knowledge or task strategy.
Is Goal Setting Theory as straight forward as it sounds?
It is true that a specific difficult goal can prompt the individual to draw upon their knowledge in order to attain that goal. However the fourth mechanism discussed above – “knowledge or task strategy” suggests that for more complex tasks (which require learning or innovation for example), a difficult goal can result in tunnel vision, having a negative effect on performance. This could be where the individual is too focused on using effort to get immediate progress towards that goal, rather than taking the time to plan, learn how to do a task or to find a more innovative way of doing the task. In 2009 (Ariely et al. 2009) this was also posited as one of the major risks of goal setting in motivation citing much earlier references as evidence (Easterbrook 1959) and (McGraw & McCullers 1979).
This risk of this type of tunnel vision in our instance may not be such an issue due to the highly repetitive work tasks because from a cognitive perspective, even though the tasks may be at times complex, for the most part they are highly repetitive (every 10 to 30 minutes) and extremely similar between projects over their careers. Because they are doing the same task so repetitively they do not have to think of an innovative way of doing it first time, instead they will typically learn, innovate and fine tune each time they do the task, possibly to work towards the larger daily or weekly goal, but even just for variety to help keep them motivated.
Even if there are new challenges in a project, at the start of a new pipeline project for example, there would usually be an opportunity (particularly in the more complex tasks such as welding and coating) for the relevant staff to be trained and qualified on the particular equipment/ methodology for the project. There is also the understanding that the start of production/ construction is usually a warming up phase, teething phase or familiarity phase. So any learning or innovation is typically pushed during this start-up phase. Then goals start to be set and encouraged once production ramps up. Therefore I do not believe this to be a critical impediment to goal setting theory in these circumstances.
The other two risks to goal setting discussed in (Ariely et al. 2009) are very closely linked, firstly there is the “Yerkes–Dodson law” (Yerkes & Dodson 1908) and other studies such as (Neiss 1988), which posits that there is an optimal level of arousal for executing tasks, and that departures from this level in either direction can lead to a decrement in performance. This is in agreement with goal setting theory, which also expresses concern with too low a goal, but here we also see a similar concern level with too high a goal. This highlights the criticality that management/ supervision are choosing achievable goals to the team. For example if the schedule is slipping, it would not be appropriate to increase the crews goals, unless suitable additional resources have been supplied, otherwise crew performance could decrease.
The other risk to goal setting discussed in (Ariely et al. 2009) is the theory that if there is too much arousal from a goal that the workers focus can shift from the “automatic”/ “autopilot” mode to a “controlled” focus. So again narrowing focus, but this time on the reward itself, or overthinking the steps to get there. In our case there is the potential for the workers to over analyse all of the sub tasks of their job to the point that they lose their natural rhythm and pace in that role. However, I believe this is unlikely as they are repeating these tasks multiple times each hour in most instances, and fine tuning as I mentioned above. I don’t believe that setting a goal for the end of the day, week or roster is going to be significantly present in their mind to interfere with their natural rhythm of doing the tasks.
Much of the research discussed has a particular focus on an individuals goals, therefore some consideration needs to be given to the fact that in our circumstances that the goals used would typically be a goal for each crew (typically a group of 2 – 10 individuals). Some of these studies include (Van Mierlo & Kleingeld 2010) where they studied groups attempting Mitchell and Silver’s tower-building paradigm (Mitchell & Silver 1990), where the group is given 15 seconds to accurately construct a model block tower.
There were two contributions from this study to the existing literature on goal setting in groups. First, the findings appear to substantiate the results of previous group goal setting studies (e.g.(Crown 2007); (Crown & Rosse 1995); (Mitchell & Silver 1990)). Which were suggesting that in a group context if an individual is given goals that are framed in terms of maximizing that individuals performance, it can interfere with cooperative processes and therefore successful task performance. This could be positive for our case, which typically uses group goals as it shows that it improves the efficiency of that crew working together, rather than individual goals which could be counterproductive to the crews performance. However this does need to be considered in terms of the different crews (potentially considered individuals) in relation to the overall project goal. This is where the construction manager needs to ensure that the individual crews are informed and given feedback on the overall Project goal and not just on their own crew goals. And that the overall Project Goal is the priority.
Second contribution, was for a time-constrained, highly interdependent group task that requires speed and accuracy, specific difficult goals might promote risky behavior that favors speed over accuracy, thereby obstructing goal attainment. This could be a risk in our case, as quality and safety are paramount in the construction of natural gas pipelines and most linear construction projects. Quality is managed using detailed specifications and quality checks as part of the construction process. Where quality is found to be lacking the task is often required to be undone (removed or deconstructed) and then re-done. This is considered as doing the task once as it was only done once compliantly. This significantly impacts on the workers progress towards their goal. It is for this reason that the goals given need to be quality specific as well as time specific. This is also a reason that crews are given larger production goals rather than individual task goals. So instead of a completing a task in 15 minutes every time, the goal would be to do the task compliantly 40 times per day. In this scenario the welder knows that insufficient quality will only hinder their ability to reach their goal due to wasted time. This is also the reason why it is critical to have adequate supervision and quality inspection when using goal setting theory on construction sites.
How can we further improve the motivation?
Goal setting theory has some very useful and interesting theories on how goals can motivate people, and so far we have considered the goal being set for the crews. We will now how we can improve the individual workers motivation towards working in that crew and achieving that goal (beyond setting a specific and difficult goal described by goal setting theory).
For this we can consider Victor Vrooms Expectancy Theory (Vroom 1964). Vroom’s theory suggests that there are three critical relationships in an individual’s motivation: first the idea that the level of effort affects the level of performance, second that the level performance will affect the level of reward and third that the level of reward will affect the level of satisfaction for the individual. For motivation to be successful he suggests that all three relationships must be present for an individual to be motivated.
In our scenario for example, motivation could be improved if the worker knows that their increased effort, will result in improved performance, which as a result they will receive a reward which relates to improving their personal satisfaction level. However if the workers increased level of effort does not result in increased performance (because of some external factor for example) they would be unlikely to continue to exert that level of effort. Or if the increased effort did improve performance but did not result in a reward, they may also be unlikely to perform at that level. Or if the reward did not meet any of their personal goals or aspirations for their satisfaction.
A literary review was conducted in 2009 (E. Navarro, 2009) of various surveys conducted over the preceding 25 years which had a particular focus on motivation in the construction industry. The collective studies included more than 5,500 individuals, spanning multiple continents and a wide range of white collar and blue collar workers. It only considered empirical studies that considered Vrooms expectancy theory, Maslows theory and Herzburgs theory. The review states that Vrooms expectancy Theory was first used by Maloney and McFillen in the mid-1980s, when trying to discover ways to improve performance and productivity (not in relation to the construction industry). It also found that Vrooms theory was the most popular method used when assessing the construction industry, being used the same amount as the other two methods combined.
There was an interesting study conducted in South Africa (Uwakweh 2006) which had a sample of over 200 construction apprentices. They were surveyed and reviewed in accordance with Vrooms model and found that the key motivators that needed improvement were not related to financial incentives but instead were simple things such as praise for jobs well done, involvement in discussing next assignments, and providing them with the current equipment. This is an example of the simplicity to which motivators can be found that can help improve performance.
An article in the Australasian Journal of Construction Economics and Building (Ghoddousi et al. 2014) conducted a review of the construction industry in Iran where again questionnaires were used and an analysis was conducted using a modified version of Vrooms theory to map the motivators of the workforce. Though the research had limitations in the fact that it was culturally bias to a workforce in a developing country, it still showed that the method of analysis can provide a detailed action list of how the motivation of a workforce can be improved once proper data is collected and anlaysed using expectancy theory similar to (Uwakweh 2006).
What can Management do to improve the motivation?
First there is the tool currently in use – goal setting, but as we noted above there are some critical factors here. The goal being set by management needs to be difficult but achieveable, this can be done by reviewing historical data, any data from this project in pre construction trials/ qualifications, speaking to supervisors about their opinion which will also help to get buy in from the group leader in the credibility of the goal. Also the goal requires regular and detailed feedback so that the crew is aware of their progress and are aware that their effort and performance is being recognized.
Using expectancy theory we know that we need to ensure that the workers increased efforts will result in improved performance. So management need to ensure that any situational constraints are controlled so as not to impact or distract the crew from achieving their goal. This could be ensuring an adequate supply of resources (personnel, equipment materials etc.) or that other crews/ stakeholders they interact with are properly managed so as not to delay the crews role. Also if it is evident that the crew are at optimal effort and performance, but are still not going to meet their goal, that further pressure to improve their effort should not be applied. This is because there is a higher potential for a negative affect on performance in this scenario.
We also know that if there is increased performance, it needs to result in increased rewards. Typically the term reward can be considered as some financial incentive, however in our application it can be counterproductive to offer financial incentives for increasing a rate of production. The reason is similar to the risk of groups under time pressure conducting a difficult task, that quality and safety could be put at risk. So for example if the workers earn their money based on the number of times that they do a task, then there is a higher risk that speed becomes their priority and therefore quality and safety could be compromised. It also can diminish citizenship behavior between different crews/ groups. Evidence of financial goal risks.
Other rewards that a worker may find beneficial to meeting their personal goals could be extrinsic rewards such as praise from the manager, public recognition, getting more authority/ promotion, better work assignments or different roles, more autonomy, more work opportunities after the project, improved job security, more training opportunities etc. These are all tools that management can use to reward employees who are working particularly hard. However they are not something that you can overuse as they could lose their value. Other rewards that workers can benefit from are the intrinsic rewards of feeling a sense of accomplishment and the comradery and bonding with your team of achieving that goal. These are more difficult for the management to foster in the workers directly, however, recognition and regular feedback from management can assist workers in improving their self-awareness of these achievements.
The third relationship is where it can get more difficult for management, particularly in our scenario where we are looking at group goals. That is how closely the proposed rewards are going to match the individuals personal goals and hence improve satisfaction levels. This is difficult because each individual is likely to have different personal goals. So the important thing here is for management to consider all of the individuals needs in the group when choosing rewards for the group.
Therefore I believe that if a construction company wants to improve its performance on its construction projects by improving motivation and therefore performance that a comprehensive survey of its employees, particularly the blue collar workers would be beneficial. Then by using a modified version of Vrooms expectancy theory similar to those used in (Uwakweh 2006) and (Ghoddousi et al. 2014) could effectively identify further improvements to motivation that could be used beyond the primary use of goal setting theory.
The use of goal setting in linear repetitive construction projects still seems to be an effective and appropriate means of encouraging motivation in this environment. The targeting of a greater goal than the individual repetitive task appears to create the greater sense of urgency and therefore sustained effort required to help achieve the overall project goal. Many of the risks associated with goal setting theory appear in most instances to be reduced in this type of project predominantly due to the highly repetitive nature of the work.
The use of expectancy theory is shown by this review to be appropriate for analysing the potential motivators that can be used in this type of construction project to further improve performance. Firstly by highlighting that management need to ensure that workers improved efforts are not impeded by external situations and that their effort is also efficiently used in improving performance. But in particular it can help inform management on how to choose suitable rewards that are aligned to the individuals goals and not just the group or project goals. There could be benefits if management are conscious of these dynamics when informing themselves when choosing rewards. However the most beneficial improvement could be made by company specific or at least industry specific research in Australia on this subject to better understand these motivators using expectancy theory.
In this paper we will consider these moderators of goal setting theory and how these can be enhanced to further improve performance. We will do this analysis by considering the relationships used in Expectancy Theory.
- Self determination theory – their pride in the role
- Ownership of the goal
- Rewards – job satisfaction, praise, recognition (employer/ peers), consideration for the next projects
- No roadblocks, shortage of materials, other crews etc
Ways for reducing boredom, increasing job satisfaction etc
Multiskill crews, job rotation
Then consider alternative opinion possibly on (Rose & Manley 2011)
However he also found that goal setting must take account of the individual’s conscious goals and intentions.
It Is relatively easy to schedule using this method as the productivity or rate of completion can be taken from similar projects constructed in the past
This minimizes the variety of the construction methodologies required along its length. The pipelines are constructed using different crews with unique roles, where one crew must finish their role on a particular length of the project before the next crew can start their role on that same section. These sections usually range in length from 10m to 1km depending on the activity, meaning some crews work very close to each other, but others may never even see each other.
The difficulty for motivation in this environment is not just the repetitive nature of the work but also that that the workers are typically working on a fly in fly out roster away from their family, working twelve-hours each day for three or four weeks at a time, with only a short break of one week to travel home between rosters. In these roles low motivation does not just pose a risk to the projects productivity and success, but can also pose a major risk to the employees mental health.
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