The middle ground of setting goals for your employees at work is extremely murky

No matter what type of work you do — white-collar, blue-collar, physical therapist, construction worker, corporate CIO — everything comes back, ultimately, to goals. (Not to get too deep here, but so does life.) When you end up managing others, you need to set a context around their goals as well — or, at the very least, the things they need to check-box achieve for your division to keep running smoothly and/or ahead of the curve. The whole notion of setting goals, how to set goals, how to manage what others see as goals, etc. has resulted in tens of thousands of pages of academic research and enough New York Times best-sellers to gag the entire Kentucky Derby fleet of horses, and ultimately, here’s what we have to show for it … basically we have no idea what’s going on.

Here’s the basic problem. If the goals you’re setting are low or poorly-defined, that’s going to reduce performance. If you sit in a million promotion/advancement-type meetings at big companies, you will hear a billion times someone say (man, this sentence is a train wreck) “Well, he’s a good worker, let’s give him a stretch assignment.” Stretch assignment is HR/business speak for giving someone a (usually) cross-functional assignment out of their comfort zone/day-to-day responsibilities but in line with something they may do if they got promoted. Most research has shown this is a good thing; when you do it, it leads to increased productivity, connection to the organization, and feelings of being valued at work. That’s how you build a top team, yo!

But it’s not all rosy, per this new study:

The authors tested high, low, increasing, decreasing, and “do your best” goals on a group of 159 undergraduates performing a series of tasks for a monetary reward.High performance goals produced more cheaters, an effect which increased with the number of consecutive goals. Starting with a stretch goal, even if it decreased in later periods, boosted depletion and unethical behavior at a higher rate as well.

Ah, f*ck. So now we’re using stretch goals to test and motivate our employees, and they’re gonna end up cheating and falling apart? Cheating is bad — hopefully your parents taught you that, but if they didn’t, here’s the business bottom line: you will get caught eventually, and it makes the brand/organization look bad, and it hurts the revenue stream, and then you’re kaput. Depletion is also bad. You ever seen someone totally bedraggled at work? They’re not really achieving anything for themselves or the company.

So now, here’s the picture: set the goals too low, you’re f’ed. Set ’em too high, you’re fostering a factory of unethical garbage. OK. What can be done?

Look at the top companies, and Google almost always tops those lists. One thing they do is give time back to the employees to work on projects of interest; this fosters trust, connection, and a re-charge of batteries (anyone who thinks logically would rather work on something of interest than something of mandate, right?). But they also use OKRs — Objectives and Key Results — which is a goal structure system borrowed from Intel. That drives how they find a middle ground and then evaluate the work of employees; believe me, you could do worse than copying Google on management tools.

Want to learn more about how Google sets goals? Watch this. It’s long, but valuable.

A lot of times in companies — not necessarily in blue-collar jobs — this stuff gets tied up in the murky world of HR, which older employees (potentially senior managers) probably view as personnel/admin and younger employees probably view as office cops, but everyone keeps saying “Well, they should handle people processes.” That’s how the situation spirals, but the one thing that is clear is this: more research should be done on the academic side around how to effectively set goals in the middle, not at either extreme.

Ted Bauer


  1. If you’d like a tool for setting your goals, you can use this web application:

    GTD Agenda.com

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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