Are Your Work Goals Too Easy?

Researchers brought two groups of people together for some testing on goal setting.  One group had been identified as low performers and the other had been identified as high performers.  The researchers wanted to find out if there were any differences in the way that the two groups approached goal setting.

To test a theory they had developed, the researchers used a ring-toss game and gave each group the following instructions.  “Take these 3 rings and go into the adjoining room.  You will find a stake on a stand in the center of the room.  Your task is to get the rings on the stake.”

The researchers then watched through one-way glass as members of each group took a turn at the task.  They noticed a striking difference between the two groups.

The group identified as low performers exhibited extreme behaviors when it came to their approach to the task.  For example, some members of the group saw the stake in the center of the room, walked right up to it and placed all three rings on the stake and left the room.  At the other end of the spectrum, other members of the low performing group saw the stake in the center of the room, moved away from it as far as they could and tried to toss a ringer from all the way across the room.  To the researchers, it was obvious that the members of this group were setting their goals way too easy or way too hard.

Next, the researchers watched the group identified as high performers take their turn with the task.  Now the behavior was distinctively different.  The members of the high performing group saw the stake in the middle of the room and placed themselves a couple of feet away for their initial toss.  If they missed, they tried again, or moved a little closer.  If they made it, they moved a little farther away for their next toss.  This group went to great lengths to make the task just the right amount of difficulty.

I’ve been thinking about this story again while I’ve been reading Hundred Percenters.  It’s a great book by Mark Murphy that recommends leaders challenge their employees to set HARD goals (Heartfelt, Animated, Required, and Difficult).  What Murphy has found out is that when people are challenged, they respond with higher levels of engagement and performance.

To learn more about Murphy’s book, check out what others are saying at Amazon.  In the meantime, take a look at your own goals.  Are they the right amount of hardness, or have they become a little too easy and routine?  Challenge yourself—and others—to higher levels of performance.  You might be surprised at the effect it has on your level of engagement.

2 thoughts on “Are Your Work Goals Too Easy?

  1. This reminds me of a speaker I heard at an education conference. He told the story of a class of middle-schoolers identified as underachievers who had flunked basic arithmetic more than once. A new teacher took over and decided to teach them algebra. They all passed. Of course, he knew better than to teach them trig!

    I teach teams to set goals they *might* be able to attain. Go too far in either direction, as your post points out, David, and interest quickly wanes. Thank you for sharing the research.

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

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A Vision Wall (inspiring images attached to your goals) is available too.
    Works also on mobile, and syncs with Evernote.

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