Each month, Toronto Business Times solicits expert opinions on a question of relevance to the small business community. This month’s question is about goal-setting.
By Kevin Tasa
As a researcher who studies the motivational effects of goals on performance, I appreciate how frustrating it can be when a goal is not reached.
Hundreds of studies over several decades point to a clear and consistent finding: assuming a person is committed to attaining a specific and challenging goal, they perform at a superior level to those who focus on vague or unspecific goals. Therefore, my first observation would be that although the goal wasn’t reached, chances are the person outperformed a comparable other who pursued a more abstract goal.
While this may be little consolation to a person falling short of a sales target, it does indicate that abandoning the goal may not be the best course of action – at least not without serious consideration.
In diagnosing what went wrong, an important thing to assess is whether the person has the requisite skills and ability to perform the task. Recent research shows that when people are trying to reach a goal on a task that is highly complex, asking them to reach a specific target sets them up for failure. This is because they devote so much attention to attaining the goal that they fail to consider learning opportunities that will help them perform better.
To illustrate, consider what might happen if a novice golfer set a goal of taking only 90 strokes to complete a round of golf (when 120 is more realistic). About halfway through a round the person is likely to get feedback telling them the goal is unrealistic (trust me, I know this). Then, they stop paying attention to things they learned, such as how to hold the club, how to line up a putt, and so on. Here, the goal is actually debilitating.
In cases like this, we recommend setting sub-goals that focus on learning the task rather than hitting a specific outcome. We call these goals learning goals, and recommend them when people are new to a task.
Finally, we also know from research that people will persist towards a goal, even if they are falling short, if they have self-confidence in their abilities to perform the task.
So, assuming a goal is attainable, managers would be wise to help their employees find examples of similar people in similar situations who have reached goals. This modeling effect can go a long way in boosting a person’s confidence.
Coaching a subordinate on how to demonstrate appropriate task-relevant behaviors is an underappreciated art, and something that goes a long way towards boosting self-confidence and increasing the likelihood that goals are achieved.
Kevin Tasa is an associate professor of organization studies at the Schulich School of Business at York University.