Goals are good. No one is arguing that fact. There is a tremendous amount of data that clearly shows that individuals, and companies that set goals perform at a higher rate than their counterparts that don’t. Knowing this doesn’t stop me from wrestling with goals from time to time, and at this time of year when organizations are going through goal setting exercises, it is again at the top of my radar. The question that keeps coming up is whether there are times when goals can actually cause productivity to decline.
First, a personal story. I never made this connection until I started thinking about the topic I just raised. When the connection was made, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m a runner. I have been since I was a freshman in high school. During that time, there have been two periods where I didn’t run at all. Both of those periods happened immediately after completing the two marathons I have run. At the time, I just thought I was tired. Now, the more I think about it, I feel like it had more to do with the letdown that occurs when you achieve a goal. For me, the marathon was unlike regular running or racing. It took a great deal of planning and preparation. I set a goal to finish, and worked my plan to achieve that goal. Once complete, there was a great sense of accomplishment. There was also a great sense that because getting there took so much out of me, there wasn’t really anything to work toward. So I stopped running. Just typing that, I laugh because it paints a mental picture of Forrest Gump, who in mid run just decides he’s done running and stops.
That got me thinking about how this applies to work and goal setting there. That’s when I happened across a study about New York City cab drivers (see note). If you’ve ever been to New York City on a rainy day and tried to hail a cab, you have probably been frustrated and wet. They seem to be non-existent on rainy days. Is it because they are jerks? No. It’s because they have most likely met their goal for the day and are home with their families. You see, most taxi drivers don’t work a set schedule. They rent their cab from the cab company and then work as much as they need to in order to pay the rent and expenses on the cab plus the profit they want to achieve. For the average cab driver, the goal they set is twice their rent and other expenses. On a sunny day, the driver may have to work all day and into the night to hit that number. On a rainy day, however, everyone wants a ride and as a result, their goal is hit very early in the day. This means fewer and fewer cabs as the day progresses.
This trend is seen in almost every job. The salesperson who hits quota on the 15th of the month will find more time to play golf during the second half of the month. The project manager who completes their project ahead of schedule will not look immediately for the next project, but rather enjoy some down time before the next one lands in her lap.
Strategies to Avoid Lower Productivity After Goal Completion
So what can you do to help your employees avoid these productivity letdowns at the completion of a goal? Here are a few strategies to try as you set and review goals with your team:
- Pay close attention to time horizons. Goals that are SMART are time bound. In the case above with the taxi drivers, the time horizon for the goal was 1 day. Once the daily goal was hit, the productivity declined. Simply adjusting the time horizon to a weekly or monthly goal would cause the driver to re-evaluate their activity level. Choosing to work more on a rainy day to make up for the next 3 sunny days when fares would be less than normal.
- Set stretch goals that stretch, but do not demotivate the employee. A stretch goal should challenge the individual to exercise muscles that don’t get the opportunity to be used on a regular basis. Set the bar too high and the employee may work really hard to achieve the objective, but then may be so burned out that their contributions to the team suffer for a period of time. Sometimes this even leads to turnover, which nobody wants.
- Be willing to adjust and flex. Goals should be thought of as elastic targets rather than directives set in stone. If you can see that a goal is going to be hit ahead of schedule, reset the goal with the participation of the employee. Adjust the reward as well to account for the success. By the same token, if you can clearly see that a goal cannot be achieved, adjust it downward before the individual simply quits trying to accomplish it. Often times, this is no fault of the employee, but the priorities of the group or the company changed mid year and there was no adjustment of the individual goals to reflect the change.
As stated earlier, goals are a good thing. When done right, goals can provide the motivation, the direction, and the step by step process for improving performance. Let’s just make sure we aren’t doing something to shoot ourselves in the foot as a result of the process.
Note: Camerer, C., Babcock, L., Loewenstein, G., & Thaler, R.
(1997). Labor supply of New York City cabdrivers: One
day at a time. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112(2), 407-441