Do goals at work seem more like New Year’s resolutions at times? There’s a reason for that.
January 20, 2020
by Jennifer Anderson, assistant professor of business administration
NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS AND GOALS - WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
New Year’s resolutions are popular - according to CNN1, about 40% of Americans set resolutions about this time of the year. But of those, only 40 – 44% of us are successful1 at achieving our goals. Often times we make resolutions that are vague, we make too many resolutions, or we make ones that are too ambitious for us to reasonably keep up with.
But things are different at work, right? Goals at work aren’t like New Year’s resolutions. At work, there are structures in place, like performance evaluation processes and strategic planning initiatives. Goals are specific and measurable; we break them down into sub-goals, complete with milestones and weekly progress meetings. Goal setting as a motivational tool has been heavily entrenched in business organizations for decades, and there is a large body of research to support the effectiveness of goal setting2.
On the other hand…
When I introduce the topic of goal setting in my MBA organizational behavior classes, I invariably hear someone, somewhere in the room, groan. You may be groaning right now (rest easy, you’re in good company). “Goals? Again? Yes, I know the SMART goal acronym. Yeah, we set a lot of goals at my organization.” Heavy sigh included. The truth is that for many organizations, goal setting is over-used. In the end, some of our workplace goals can feel a lot like New Year’s resolutions feel when the month of May rolls around – we’ve lost sight of the whole thing.
Despite all the structure and formality associated with goal setting in the workplace, there are some very good reasons why goals, like New Year’s resolutions, just fade away. Despite its ongoing popularity, goal setting in organizations is problematic in some specific ways, with predictable results. Here are three ways in which goals actually drive employee disengagement, and what you can do about it.
Too many goals are set
Along with the popularity of goal setting, comes lots and lots of goals. Employees can be overwhelmed by the number of goals they must manage, and the result is that they disengage from some or all of the goals they have. Research suggests that we really only focus on one goal at a time, even when we are juggling multiple goals3.
What to do?
Ask yourself if setting a goal is really necessary. Is a production goal an actual goal, or is it a target that needs to be met in order to fulfill the company’s commitments? There’s a difference – the power of the appropriate use of goal setting is that it motivates people to engage in creative problem solving in response to a specific challenge, not everyday tasks or metrics.
Goals are too challenging
Organizations are under constant pressure to improve – better customer service, faster production, higher quality, lower costs (that sounds like a lot) – and in today’s competitive market, that can quickly turn into goals that are too challenging for employees to accomplish. If an employee perceives that a goal is too challenging, they may give up trying, or not even start to work toward the goal in the first place. It may also drive unethical behaviors in an effort to meet the goal.
What to do?
Ask yourself, and your employees, if the goal is reasonable. Does the organization, including its people, have the resources needed to accomplish this goal? Will people cut corners or engage in risky behaviors in trying to accomplish it? What’s the cost of failure? An honest discussion of these questions with employees gives them voice and a broader view of the organization and its objectives, and it gives management information about goal receptivity and any resources that may be needed to accomplish the goal. In the end, you may discover creative ways to lessen the challenge of the goal.
A greater focus on performance outcomes at the expense of the process
One reason why goals are effective in motivating people to action is that when crafted well, they engage our natural inclination to problem-solve. When organizations focus too heavily on performance outcomes and not on the path to accomplishing a goal, there may be little to no knowledge gained, any knowledge gained may be lost, and employees can feel like cogs in a machine rather than a creative engine for improvement. Dealing with performance-focused goals in series, or multiple performance-focused goals at the same time can quickly burn out employees.
What to do?
Goals inherently involve performance of some kind – a metric achieved, a problem solved, or an accomplishment met, so it may seem like there’s no getting away from this. The key is in balanced attention to the specific outcome you’re working toward, but also to the overall relevance of the goal to the organization and to the work it took to get there. When goals are achieved, it’s important to stop and recognize that achievement, to consolidate knowledge and to reinforce employees’ role in the accomplishment. This need not be lavish, but should be appropriate to the importance of the goal. Organizations are so steeped in the habit of moving from one thing to another without pause that simply stopping, for just a little while, can have a big impact on employees’ morale and engagement.
This year, resolve to take a look at the goal setting practices in your organization. If you and your employees are swamped with goals, can’t see a way forward on specific goals, or feel like you’re moving from one thing to another as if you’re on an assembly line, there’s a fair chance that some employees are already disengaged. However, with attention and careful management, goal setting can indeed be a powerful tool to motivate change, innovation and progress.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer S. Anderson joined the faculty of Weber State University in 2014 and serves as an assistant professor of business administration in the Goddard School of Business & Economics. She also serves as chair of the Goddard School’s curriculum committee and is active in the Goddard School’s study abroad program. In addition to BA and MBA degrees, Anderson holds a PhD in management and organizations from the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. She teaches in both the undergraduate and MBA programs at the Goddard School, focusing on organizational behavior, critical thinking, and business management courses.
Anderson’s research interests focus on the motivating influences of organizational justice (fairness) on workplace behaviors and on counterproductive workplace behaviors. She is also pioneering research on the social psychological bases of greed and perceptions of greedy behavior. She is the recipient of several awards and grants in the areas of teaching, research and service. She is also a consulting editor for the Journal of Education for Business. In addition, Anderson has broad work experience in a variety of leadership positions, including several years with the U.S. Army and 10 years with Starbucks Coffee Company.
1 Retrieved Jan 20, 2020 from: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/01/health/keeping-new-years-resolutions-wellness/index.html
2 Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265-268.
3 Shah, J.Y., Friedman, R., & Kruglanski, A.W. (2002). Forgetting all else: On the antecedents and consequences of goal shielding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1261-1280.