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Do Goals Limit Team Performance?

Conventional wisdom contends that goals are essential for improving team performance. I’ve shared that belief for years, but what if it is wrong? What if goals act to hold back a team’s performance?

For low performing teams, I’m convinced that goals do inspire improvement. For those groups, inertia tends to rule, and the status quo is king. Without specific targets, there is little spontaneous call for improving processes, and in turn, results.

But what about when team performance is high? Aren’t those teams self-motivated? Do goals act as a cap on opportunity and become a self-fulfilling prophecy? I recently heard a theory that, for those groups, when teams achieve their goals, they often ease back on the throttle. This can leave immense opportunities on the table.

What do you think? Do you see this happening? Please answer in the poll below and add any of your thoughts in the comments section.

Does reaching a goal cause a high-performing teams to stop making improvements?

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2 Comments

  • Tim McMahon says:

    Jeff, I don’t think it is that easy. You can’t set targets and forget it. I believe managing the process is better than the result. Part of that process has to be some catchball of the objective. There has to be agreement by all – sponsor, team leader, and team. This process of agreement should help set the right goal for the team no matter the performance level.

    What do you think?

    • Jeff Hajek says:

      I agree with your take on the management of the goals, and have used similar approaches for years. I’m actually thinking of it in a more psychological way. Do people impose artificial limits on themselves when they have a goal in front of them? Again, I am talking about the high performers who are driven to achievement. Does an 11% goal stand in the way of a 15% gain?
      I think there is some self-fulfilling prophecy here.
      I don’t think changing a goal on the fly is the way to go. Somehow seems unfair to set a target in January, and then raise in in July because it was too easy for a team to reach it.
      I suspect that the right answer is to reward overdelivering in a big way. After all, the company is getting a bonus–sharing seems like the right thing to do.

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