This is a Forbes.com article originally written by Sebastian Bailey on October 2nd, 2012, and it can’t be as relevant now as it was then, especially and particularly for #Mission52 students. I couldn’t pass, so shouldn’t you! 😉
Have you heard the one about the 3% of Harvard/Yale grads who wrote down their goals and ended up earning more than the other 97% combined? Unfortunately it appears to be an apocryphal tale – there’s no evidence that any such study was ever carried out.
Nevertheless, from self-help to sport to business, few people dispute the power of goals in raising performance. What they struggle to agree on is what type of goals are best – should they be SMART, SMARTER, INSPIRE, and what does each letter stand for again?
When in teams, people think they can get away with not pulling their weight, because their team mates’ productivity will compensate for it.
Scientific research has unearthed the basic principles behind goal-setting. A 2011 meta-analysis (which is a kind of mega-study of lots of smaller research studies) examined the results of 38 studies into the effect of group goals on performance. It revealed three key characteristics of performance-boosting goals:
No surprises there. Specific goals (‘come up with 10 novel uses for a coat hanger’) result in significantly higher group performance than moderately specific (‘come up with 8 – 12 ideas’) or vague (‘do your best’) goals.
The research supports Locke’s original goal-setting theory; difficult goals lead to higher performance than easy ones. It makes sense; we have to put in more effort to reach a difficult target. The ideal is a stretch not a strain – difficult but not dauntingly impossible.
3) Group centric
The researchers looked at whether each individual’s goal was egocentric (like maximizing their personal performance) or group centric (like maximizing their contribution to a group). Only group centric individual goals improved performance. Egocentric goals actually had a detrimental effect on the group’s performance, because individuals weren’t invested in the group’s success. Egocentric goals also meant individuals competed for resources, which undermined the group as a whole.
The implication is that for teams to thrive, individuals should be rewarded for the contribution they make to the whole. Sales teams with individual targets are an obvious example where this is not the case. But when it comes to review time, group centric goals are tricky to evaluate. The availability bias means that we each think that we contribute more to a group than others, because our individual effort is more noticeable to us. Reviews should stick to objective facts to remove this bias towards our own contribution.
High-performing team members then see their peers getting away with laziness and reduce their own input accordingly.
Because of the nature of much of the research into goal setting – conducted in laboratories, on artificial tasks, and measured at a single point in time – one thing the meta-analysis didn’t pick up was the importance of regular feedback. In one field study, researchers Chhokar and Wallin found that fortnightly feedback on progress against goals raised performance. When the feedback stopped, performance dropped again.
Feedback is especially important for group-centric goals, which are likely to fall foul of the sucker effect. Experiments have found that when people work alone, they perform better than when they think they’re working as part of a group. When in teams, people think they can get away with not pulling their weight, because their team mates’ productivity will compensate for it. High-performing team members then see their peers getting away with laziness and reduce their own input accordingly.
To Take Away: Specific, difficult, group-centric goals are the key to maximizing performance – as long as poor performance isn’t allowed to stick around for long.