The Right Goals for the Right Situations

Todd Fonseca

Editor’s Note: If you’re at all like me, a) I’m so so, so very sorry, and b) you’ve probably read a lot about New Year’s resolutions and goal setting the last month or so. We’ve contributed to that information onslaught ourselves. What is underappreciated, IMHO, is the need to consider the type of goal and the importance of applying the right ones in the right personal, professional and organizational context. So, let’s fix that. Take a read, give some thought, and try not to be so much like me. It’s not worth it.


Years ago, in a fit of uncontrollable impatience we now refer to as “The Fence Incident,” I decided to vault myself over the backyard fence instead of using the gate, which would, in my mind, take too long. Looking back, I’m still impressed with the height I achieved to easily clear the chain links. Unfortunately, I also lost control and my epic vault landed me in the emergency room. Turns out my shoulder isn’t supposed to be positioned where my sternum normally resides.

That was more than 15 years ago. In the last few, I’ve noticed that my flexibility in the dislocated shoulder has substantially diminished. Wanting to improve my joint and connective tissue health, I came upon something called gymnastic strength training. (I’ve always wondered how male gymnasts can do positions on rings where they seem to defy the laws of physics. Why don’t their shoulders rip out of their sockets?)

The key is mobility, a combination of strength and flexibility. Former U.S. Junior Olympic Gymnastic coach Christopher Sommer created a program for normal people to learn joint, connective tissue and strength training. He calls the training “foundations” because all of the exercises progress toward doing seven foundational gymnastic positions, including manna and straddle planche.

Now honestly, performing a planche is not my goal. My goal is to improve my mobility. My challenge: Just the first foundation level of this program takes an average of 18 months. That’s a long time to pursue a goal. Guess what? I have stayed with this exercise program three times longer than any other I’ve tried.

What makes it so different and what can that difference teach us about goal setting? Let’s take a look at the science of goals.

SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound – aren’t the only key to success. In fact, the science has evolved and what you may have learned historically about goal setting may actually create the opposite result of what you are working towards.

Three Types of Goals

Research in this area tends to categorize the different types of goals into the following three categories:

  1. Do-Your- Best Goals – These types of goals have no measurements associated with them. We are instructed to “do our best.” Using a sports analogy, if we were learning to shoot a free throw, a do your-best goal would be to improve free throws over the course of a training period.
  2. Performance/Outcome Goals – This goal has a specific outcome like achieving a free throw percentage of 80% or better by the end of the training period.
  3. Process/Learning Goals – An example of learning goals would be to learn the various fundamentals associated with a good free throw – for example learning the correct footwork on the line, how to aim the ball, the position of the shooting arm and elbow, the use of the legs, the importance of achieving a fluid motion, and the appropriate release and follow through of the shot.

Almost all goals in a business setting are of the performance or outcome nature. They are easiest to measure – grow revenue by 5%, close 10% more deals, produce 25% more product, release new product by X date, and so on. These are the types of goals that have run factories for years and increased productivity.

Almost all goals in a business setting are of the performance or outcome nature.

However, these goals don’t always work as intended.

The Role of Complexity

Some of you may be familiar with Daniel Pink’s TED talk about motivation. He talks about an experiment where participants were given a candle, thumbtacks and matches and instructed to attach the candle to the wall so that wax won’t drip onto a table. In some experimental conditions, participants were told they would receive money if they scored a time within the top 25%. The actual average time for these groups was 3.5 minutes longer than those who weren’t offered any monetary incentive. In fact, study after study shows that extrinsic rewards don’t work for complex, creative tasks.

My favorite story on this topic involves the Marshmallow Challenge. Tom Wujec’s TED talk describes the challenge in which teams of four are given 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow, and the teams are to build the tallest freestanding structure with the marshmallow on top in only 18 minutes. On average, teams create a 20-inch-tall structure. However, when Wujec offered a $10,000 reward for the highest structure, the winning structure didn’t reach 20 inches. It didn’t reach 15 or even 10 inches. There was no winner. None of the teams had a standing structure when the 18 minutes was up.

(Another useful perspective is found in a meta-analysis by Wood et. al. which found that the effects of goal setting becomes less pronounced as the task becomes more difficult.)

So what goals drive achievement? And which ones work for complex, creative tasks?

Study after study shows that extrinsic rewards don’t work for complex, creative tasks

In 2005, Seijts and Latham discussed their research in which participants were asked to play what is known as the cellular industry business game. It is a complex game with multiple variables and changing conditions where the goal is to improve market share by the end of the game. Three groups were formed with three different goals – a "do-your-best” group was instructed to simply “do their best” to improve market share, the “performance/outcome” group was asked to improve their market share by 20%, and the “learning/process” group was asked to identify three effective strategies to drive market share. The result of this studied showed no difference between those with the “performance” and “do-your-best” groups. However, the “learning/process” group achieved twice the market share of those in the other two groups.

Are learning or process goals always the best? Well, we need next to consider environmental factors.

Challenge vs Threat

(Editor’s note: A simple distinction here is that a challenge mindset or environment is when a competitive situation is framed as an opportunity to increase resources, and a threat environment is when that situation may result in the loss of resources.)

My youngest son told me about a friend who has struggled with his grades. His parents took away all privileges (extrinsic rewards) until he got A's on his work (performance/outcome goal). Unfortunately, his grades didn’t improve. The boy was operating under a “threat environment.” That is, his situation was not seen as a positive challenge to achieve a new skill but a threat to avoid further punishments and loss. Work by Carol Dweck and her colleagues has shown that when people adopt this threat mindset, they interpret their inability to achieve the desired outcome as an indicator of low ability that severely impacts their self-esteem.

Similarly, in The Best Place to Work, Ron Friedman writes that when people are in the threat mindset “[they] have to exert significantly more mental energy than participants in an approach [challenge] state just to accomplish the same level of work … The avoidance [threat] group also overestimated the difficulty of the task before getting started.”

Anat Drach-Zahavyand Miriam Erez conducted studies where participants were placed in one of three stress conditions – low, threat (negative) and challenge (positive) – and assigned one of three goals – do best, difficult (outcome/performance), and strategy (learning/process). Their results found that difficult or outcome/performance goals were superior in every scenario but one. Performance dropped substantially in the threat (difficult) goals condition.

So What Goals Should You Use and When Should You Use Them?

At present, research – including this study and the above-mentioned work – indicates that when someone is first learning the skills necessary to tackle a complex project, process or learning goals are superior. Once they have learned these fundamental skills, outcome/performance goals are better unless a threatening environment exists. We have all seen employees who are struggling to perform. They are put on a performance improvement plan usually consisting of specific performance/outcome goals (vs. learning goals) and their performance usually gets worse. They take longer, second guess themselves and begin a spiral into poorer and poorer performance, just like the study above illustrated.

These lessons also explain my success at sticking with my exercise program. The weekly goals built into the program are learning goals that have kept me motivated to keep learning to achieve the next progression.

So the next time you are creating goals for yourself or your organization, consider skill level, task complexity and whether there is a challenge or threat mindset.

And if I ever achieve a planche, I’ll let you know.

A version of this piece originally appear on Todd’s blog.

Todd Fonseca


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