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What the Research Says About You & Goals

September 18, 2014

What if I could guarantee that you’ll learn something valuable that you didn’t know before… if you read this blog?  I think I’m pretty safe making that guarantee with what you’ll find below.  In the past I’ve covered a number of topics on goals, ranging from smart goals to engaging goals, and the impact of conflict/discomfort avoidance on the pursuit of goals.  But I’ll know you will be well served if you use goals at work to know the actual research on goals.  Ok that’s a fair amount of research time, so what if I summarize it for you?  Sound like a deal?  The following summary is pulled in part from Latham, & Yukl’s “A Review of Research on the Application of Goal Setting in Organizations.”   You can find it in the Academy of Management Journal 18.4 (1975): 824–845.   Let’s see how many of the findings you have already built into your management skillset.

  1. Using Goals does Improve Performance: Production is significantly higher when work is structured around goals, versus when it is not. Both quantity and quality show improvement when using goals, with quantity showing the largest gains.
  2. Goals, Performance and Managers: Managers who are a goal planners (who set goals for their reports and supervise or give feedback on the outcome) generate significantly higher productivity than managers who supervise, but do not set goals, or set goals but don’t provide feedback.
  3. Goals, Performance and Top Management: Planning and goal setting is strongly correlated with improved performance and increased commitment by employees, but only when given encouragement and support by top management! Lack of involvement by top management is defined as a lack of personal involvement in driving the corporate goal setting process down the organization.
  4. Goals, Specificity and Individual Performance: Being specific about setting goals, even if using goal planning software, only increases performance for individuals who have high achievement needs.  Achieving goals is one characteristic of high performers.
  5. Goals and Self Fulfilling Prophecy: People that have a track record of success, respond to goals with increased performance, while people who have a history of more losses than wins do not have such an increase. Bottom line, what you believe about yourself you tend to perpetuate. 
  6. Goals, Performance and Maturity: If people have self-confidence, maturity and a sense of control over being able to earn rewards for their efforts, they respond to stretch goals with increased performance. Those that are low on these traits do poorer with stretch goals.
  7. Feedback and Performance: Feedback helps performance when: its relevant, given with helpful presentation and timing, and directed to people who have high achievement motivation. People with low achievement goals do not show a correlation between performance and feedback.
  8. Goal Setting, Learning and Performance: If you want to improve learning, combine it with goal setting. In order to maximize the benefits of training upon performance, don’t just send people for training, tie it into specific performance goals.
  9. Participating and Goal Acceptance: Participating in goal planning works better (creates more engagement) than having goals assigned to you… but only sometimes. Actually the larger impact upon performance is corporate goal acceptance. Whether participants get there by participating or being assigned is probably second in importance.


Bottom Line: Making goal setting pay off at work is not sure thing.  In fact there are a number of intervening variables that impact the outcome.  Things like whether or not the individuals working goals are achievement motivated.  I hope you found a number of “take-aways” from the research you can use.  I certainly did, including the fact that there is nothing magical about writing out goals, to get them to help you generate improved outcomes there’s a bunch of investments from both individual employees and the management team supporting them for it all to come together with a win.  That investment works a lot better if you use the right technology, which is why I like ManagePro so much.

2 Comments. Leave new

I found it interesting that goal setting doesn’t neccessarily work for everyone. I believe in goal setting and so, my take away from this; I plan on asking job applicants about goals they have set for themselves or had set for them and their trek towards achievement of those goals. The applicant I want to hire is the one who talks with excitement about goals they have reached.


Betsy, I think that’s wise. If you ask people how they get from point A to B, I find people use all sorts of methods, which I don’t want to over-look. The thing about goals, is that almost everyone has to have something else going on to realize goals… e.g. beyond setting them… and that’s the stuff, whether it’s having a buddy check, changing their schedule, etc… that’s the area that needs attention, otherwise goal setting just becomes wishful thinking.


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