Finding an effective way to motivate employees across jobs and organizational levels has always been the Holy Grail for management theorists and practitioners alike.

A variety of predictors have been suggested as key motivational factors. Money. Empowerment. Self-determination. Managerial recognition. All of these have been proved to work… in some circumstances that is. Money, for example, is a very good motivator – if the task at hand is easy, well structured and quantifiable. So is empowerment – if the task is complex, and you have enough resources to complete it.

But there is a single model for motivation that outperforms all the others. A model replicated in more than 1000 studies across tens of countries and hundreds of job positions. The most robust predictor of highly motivated employees – properly set goals.

According to goal-setting theory, all things being equal, the more difficult a goal is and the more specific it is, the higher the employee motivation and hence, job performance (well, at least in about 90% of the studies). This seems to work for both white and blue collar workers, for managers and factory workers alike.

But here’s a question: what happens, if you occupy the leadership role in your organization? Who sets the goals if you’re in an extremely independent position or, worse yet, don’t have a supervisor at all? What is the proper motivational system then?

The answer is usually simple – money. In order to motivate leaders / managers / executives and get great results, you have to pay them money. But not just a fixed amount of money. You have to pay them for performance. Right?

Wrong. Firstly, that’s not how motivation works – you don’t deliver more in complex tasks because you want the money; sometimes, money can even hurt your performance. Secondly, as we’ve learned from numerous accounts, the pay-performance link among managers and executives is a myth. We have data to back it up.

The obvious answer is this – the leader can set the goal him or herself. While some limitations apply, the research seems to support this solution – whatever the source of the goals, difficult and specific goals are far better than just “doing your best”.

So, how to make the most of the model? Below you can find three key practices to maximize the benefits of goal setting for leaders:

  1. Make it relevant. The goal that you set for yourself has to mean something – if it’s just about the money, it won’t be worth it. If it’s about power, proving yourself, helping other people – the chances of completing it are higher.
  2. Believe in yourself (or make yourself good enough to believe). Not everybody is lucky to work in environments that nurture self-esteem – after all, the impostor effect is a real thing for a reason. However, as you are more likely to achieve goals that are attainable for you personally, make sure to either set them to match your competencies or train so that your competencies match the goal.
  3. Commit yourself. Goals work better if they make you accountable to others. Don’t overshare your goals (that doesn’t seem to be working), but make sure to make others involved in monitoring your progress, providing you feedback and generally being aware of the fact that a certain – specific and difficult – goal has been set.