Hard Goals Feel Good
by Mark Murphy | Talent Management
HR leaders and CEOs alike shudder at the thought of employees perfunctorily dusting off last year's ignored, abandoned or failed goals to keep their boss happy. There are reasons these goals crashed and burned, if they ever even got started. And until those issues are recognized and addressed, the pattern of underachievement likely will stay the same or plummet even further.
A growing number of talent management executives realize that just having employees set goals is not the same as getting them to care about those goals. In fact, many leaders have come to the conclusion that goal setting might be a pointless exercise if employees don't take ownership of their goals and have a vested interest in their outcomes. Thus, talent managers are looking for new ways to maximize the likelihood of goal success.
Leadership training and workforce research firm Leadership IQ conducted several goal studies throughout 2010 as part of its new book, HARD Goals: The Secret to Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. These studies, including "Are SMART Goals Dumb?" and "Difficult Goals Drive Engagement," found that two specific ideas have been capturing top executives' attention as they search for ways to get employees to care about their goals: visualizing goals and increasing goal difficulty.
Humans are visual creatures. We respond to imagery, which means if we can imagine it, see it or picture it, we're a lot more likely to process, understand and embrace it. The technical term from cognitive psychology is "pictorial superiority effect." It expresses the idea that concepts are better remembered if presented as pictures rather than as words. In his book Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina tells us that when we only hear information, our total recall is about 10 percent when tested 72 hours later. But add a picture and that number shoots up to 65 percent. That's a substantial difference.
Every goal an employee considers is competing for finite resources such as time, energy, attention and memory. Plus, people can only pursue so many goals at one time. Some will be chosen and pursued while others are abandoned. One of the key determinants of whether or not a goal is pursued is how clearly and vividly someone can picture that goal in his or her mind.
Waste removal company 1-800-Got Junk uses goal visualization well. CEO Brian Scudamore said, "If you can't see your vision come true, you'll never have enough faith in it to achieve it." He built a vision wall easily viewable by employees and crowned it with a sign that reads: "Can You Imagine?" It's here that company goals become so animated that employees feel like they already happened. A 2006 Harvard MBA case study of Scudamore's vision wall suggested people can achieve what they conceive and believe. The wall included mocked-up pictures and images of 1-800-Got Junk appearing on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," the company brand name appearing on Starbucks to-go cups and the company having a specific number of franchises. The company achieved each of those goals. To top off this visualization success, in the first five years of business, 1-800-Got-Junk's revenue grew from more than $200,000 to more than $8 million.
Making Goals More Difficult
Another trend Leadership IQ tracked is employees' and leaders' growing skepticism about SMART goals' effectiveness. While every company has set its share of specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound - or SMART - goals, a Leadership IQ survey of 4,182 workers in March 2010 discovered that there was no meaningful correlation between employees' use of SMART goals and their belief that their goals would help them achieve great things.
Too often SMART goals act as impediments to, not enablers of, bold action. Yes, they have enabled us to conveniently whittle down our goals to what is almost a science. We fill out the proper forms, calculate the proper numbers and meet the critical keywords, such as specific, achievable and realistic. But in the midst of all this paperwork and parsing, we've dumbed the challenge right out of our goals.
We've been creating goals that tell everyone, "Don't push beyond your resources or bite off more than you can chew. Play it safe and stay within your limitations." But our best people don't want to come to work to baby step through their days. They want a challenge; they want to do their time in the lion's den and come out victorious, to feel that what they do at work has a real bearing on the big picture.
The same study also uncovered that only 15 percent of employees believe their goals for the year will help them achieve great things, and only 13 percent of employees think their goals will help them maximize their full potential. That's more than 75 percent of the workforce telling us that their goals aren't challenging enough.
Doing Better Than Your Best
The direct correlation between goal difficulty and performance was first discovered some 40 years ago by psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham. Thanks to them - and the legions of researchers they inspired - there is conclusive validation that people who set or are given difficult, specific goals achieve much greater performance levels than people who are given or set weaker goals that send a message of "just do your best."
In one of Latham's experiments, drawn from his work in the 1970s with forestry, wood and paper company Weyerhaeuser, the research team studied how difficult goals could improve the performance of logging truck drivers. To run efficiently, logging trucks need to be filled as close as possible to their maximum legal weight, otherwise multiple runs are required, costing additional time, fuel and labor. But this is not an easy task: Giant logs are all different sizes, weights need to be accurate, workers need good spatial orientation and so on.
For the experiment, it was determined that a load that was 94 percent of the maximum legal net weight would be difficult, but not impossible, to achieve. When workers were given a "do your best" goal, they loaded the trucks to somewhere around 60 percent of the maximum legal weight, equaling a lot of wasted space. But when they were given the significantly more difficult goal of loading the trucks to 94 percent of their maximum legal weight, that's exactly what happened. This one simple experiment saved the company around $250,000 in nine months.
Difficult goals work because they force us to pay attention. It may be that they command our attention because they're a little scary, they're really exciting or they're simply a departure from our normal daily routine. Whatever the reason, our brains become engaged, and that inspires motivation.
Brain Rules tells us that "the more the brain pays attention to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded - and retained." This is important given the number of stimuli constantly competing for the brain's precious attention resources. It's like running too many applications on a computer; they consume limited resources and the system starts to slow down. But when a difficult goal is set, it consumes so much of the brain's resources that it crowds out a lot of other, less important goals. It's like shutting down some of those background computer applications. And with that extra brainpower comes better performance.
Hard Goals Feel Good
It's not just the brain's resources that are affected; feelings get involved as well. Leadership IQ conducted a study in June 2009 to see how being assigned a difficult goal at work made people feel. The study asked more than 4,000 people to rate a series of survey questions, such as: "I will have to exert extra effort to achieve my assigned goals for this year," and "I will have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year."
The first thing researchers discovered was that when people gave high scores on those questions, they also tended to give high scores on some of the other survey questions, such as: "I consider myself a high performer," and "The work I do makes a difference in people's lives."
When people are given goals that require extra learning and effort, they are more likely to consider themselves high performers and also to believe that the work they do is important. Why? First, difficult goals instill confidence. Nobody is going to give big challenges to a numskull. The boss would only assign difficult goals to someone who has a real shot at hitting them. So, by extension, if a boss gives an employee a hard goal, he or she must believe the individual can achieve that goal. It's another way of the boss saying, "I believe in you. You're the right person for this job." The second reason difficult goals work so well is that they convey the message that the work is important. Nobody would spend the time or energy creating tough goals for work that was unnecessary or wasteful.
There was one other noteworthy finding from this study. Employees who had bosses who set more difficult goals were far more likely to give high scores to these questions: "I recommend this company to others as a great place for people to work," and "I recommend my boss to others as a great person to work for."
This makes good intuitive sense. If a boss really thinks through what kinds of goals are going to elicit employees' best performance and if he or she sits down with those individuals to design optimally difficult goals, it's a clear indication that the boss cares about them. That level of caring can buy a lot of heartfelt employee loyalty, not to mention a great deal of extra effort.
[About the Author: Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and author of the just-released book HARD Goals: The Secret to Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.]