Hard Goals Feel Good

Mark Murphy

Here is a contribution by Mark Murphy to the “Performance Management” series featured by Talent Management magazine (January 2011). To check out an abundance of resources and sign up for a free subscription to TM and/or Chief Learning Office magazine (both published by MediaTec), please click here.

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HR leaders and CEOs alike shudder at the thought of employees perfunctorily dusting off last year’s ignored, abandoned or failed goals to keep their boss happy. There are reasons these goals crashed and burned, if they ever even got started. And until those issues are recognized and addressed, the pattern of underachievement likely will stay the same or plummet even further.

A growing number of talent management executives realize that just having employees set goals is not the same as getting them to care about those goals. In fact, many leaders have come to the conclusion that goal setting might be a pointless exercise if employees don’t take ownership of their goals and have a vested interest in their outcomes. Thus, talent managers are looking for new ways to maximize the likelihood of goal success.

Leadership training and workforce research firm Leadership IQ conducted several goal studies throughout 2010 as part of its new book, HARD Goals: The Secret to Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. These studies, including “Are SMART Goals Dumb?” and “Difficult Goals Drive Engagement,” found that two specific ideas have been capturing top executives’ attention as they search for ways to get employees to care about their goals: visualizing goals and increasing goal difficulty.

Visualizing Goals

Humans are visual creatures. We respond to imagery, which means if we can imagine it, see it or picture it, we’re a lot more likely to process, understand and embrace it. The technical term from cognitive psychology is “pictorial superiority effect.” It expresses the idea that concepts are better remembered if presented as pictures rather than as words. In his book Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina tells us that when we only hear information, our total recall is about 10 percent when tested 72 hours later. But add a picture and that number shoots up to 65 percent. That’s a substantial difference

Every goal an employee considers is competing for finite resources such as time, energy, attention and memory.

Plus, people can only pursue so many goals at one time. Some will be chosen and pursued while others are abandoned. One of the key determinants of whether or not a goal is pursued is how clearly and vividly someone can picture that goal in his or her mind.

Waste removal company 1-800-Got Junk uses goal visualization well. CEO Brian Scudamore said, “If you can’t see your vision come true, you’ll never have enough faith in it to achieve it.” He built a vision wall easily viewable by employees and crowned it with a sign that reads: “Can You Imagine?” It’s here that company goals become so animated that employees feel like they already happened. A 2006 Harvard MBA case study of Scudamore’s vision wall suggested people can achieve what they conceive and believe. The wall included mocked-up pictures and images of 1-800-Got Junk appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the company brand name appearing on Starbucks to-go cups and the company having a specific number of franchises. The company achieved each of those goals. To top off this visualization success, in the first five years of business, 1-800-Got-Junk’s revenue grew from more than $200,000 to more than $8 million.

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Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and author of the just-released book HARD Goals: The Secret to Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.


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