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Goal setting – handle with care!

Think back to your early experiences as a manager – your “Management 101 class”. You were probably given some training or direction on goal setting. It was likely a variation on the SMART acronym, and you would have been told that goals are good because having targets motivates people. All good and useful stuff. However… goals can be unhelpful, or even destructive. Here is why.

There is a story I heard once about goal setting. The story concerned an airline that was having problems with baggage handling. There were a number of customer complaints about the amount of time it took from the time the passengers arrived at the luggage carousel and the time the bags eventually arrived. It wasn’t a good picture. So the airline reviewed the baggage handling process and decided that setting performance targets for the baggage handlers would speed things up. They set a target – the time it took from when the cargo door opened until the first bag arrived on the carousel. What do you think happened? Apparently the first bag arrived very quickly. Then there was a long gap before the rest arrived. The behaviour the goal created was not what was expected!

Another example is Sears experience in the early 90’s. When set specific sales targets of $147 per hour, the auto repair staff began overcharging customers and completing unnecessary repairs on a company wide basis.

Learning 1. When you set a goal – think about the behaviour that goal will drive. Is it what you want?

Years ago in a program I was running (on goal setting) one of the team leaders in the program told the group that he had performance targets for the overall employee engagement result of the division he worked for. He was annoyed and demotivated because it was something he had very little control over. As he rightly pointed out, even if his team were extremely engaged (because that is something he did have great influence over), he had no control over how other team leaders managed their teams, no control over the impact of more senior leaders, or over the whole of business engagement drivers. So holding him to account for a whole of division score didn’t really make sense to him.

Learning 2. Set goals only for things that people can impact, influence or control.

There is a well-known study on inattentional blindness which most of you have probably seen. A video is shown of 2 basketball teams playing and the observer is asked to count the number of passes between the team players wearing white shirts. Because the observers are focussing on the white shirts and not the black ones, almost everyone misses that a guy in a gorilla suit walks onto the court. With narrow specific goals people lose focus on the big picture. A study showed that when asked to proofread a document, participants found more errors than when asked to spell check it. The group asked to spell check did exactly that – focussed on only the spelling – and missed obvious grammatical mistakes.

Learning 3. Set goals that are focussed on the bigger picture.

When working with teams on goal setting I often see goals being set based on “what is easy to measure”. There is a story about why it is so difficult to get a cab in New York City when it is raining. We assume it is because the cabs are busy – because it is raining everyone is taking a cab. Not so. The cabbies have daily earnings targets and once the quota is filled they knock off for the day. On rainy days more people catch cabs and the cabbies meet their targets quicker. By using something that is easy to measure, the cab drivers have lost sight of the big picture – they could actually earn a lot more on a rainy day if they kept working even though they have met their targets.

Learning 4. Set goals that are important to success.

So, goals can be useful, but handle with care…..

About the author:

Rosalind Cardinal is the Principal Consultant of Shaping Change, a Hobart based consultancy, specialising in improving business outcomes by developing individuals, teams and organisations.

Ros is a solutions and results oriented facilitator and coach, with a career in the Human Resources and Organisational Development field spanning more than 20 years.  Ros brings an energetic and proactive approach combined with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Her expertise spans leadership development, organisational culture, team building, change and transition management, organisational behaviour, employee engagement and motivation, strategic direction and management.

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