Although we’ve been told that goals are a key to success, what if goal-setting actually reduces performance?
Many years back I worked with a Formula One racing team. At that time, pit crews consisted of 19 guys who serviced the ultrafast, high-tech race– refueling cars, changing tires, and performing required maintenance in a matter of seconds. The pit crew members continually shifted positions to find the optimal configuration of the team. As they practiced, they used a stopwatch to measure their time to the millisecond. There was a point where they hit a performance plateau. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t go any faster.
Then, they tried a counter intuitive approach. Pit crew members were told that instead of focusing on speed they should focus on style. They were to go fast, but they were to think “smooth” as they performed their activities. Movement was more significant than speed. Astonishingly, the pit crew shaved several tenths of a second off their best time, even though they “felt” they were moving more slowly.
The more you focus on a goal, the less likely you are to achieve it. By worrying about the future, you take your eye off the present. And this reduces performance.
Selling Without Selling
This concept applies in all areas of life and business.
For example, sometimes the best way to sell is to not focus on your sales goals. A woman’s clothing store had a competition to determine who among its employees could sell the most in two months. The winner would receive a bonus and small raise. All had their eyes on the prize, except for one sales rep who decided on a different approach. Instead of trying to make a sale, she zeroed in on serving the customer. If a customer needed help for eight hours to pick out a blouse, that’s what she would do. If she felt customers would find a better product at a competitor, she would send them there. After two months, this sales person who was not trying to make sales outsold everyone else by a significant margin.
We have seen similar results in many sales and service organizations. We all know (and believe) the expression, “You get what you measure.” But a serious question arises: will you get what you want? Often, targets and goals create stress and dysfunctional behavior.
Less Motivation, More Performance
The concept of reducing goal-obsession to improve performance is not new. In the early 1900s, Robert Yerkes and J.D. Dodson developed the eponymous Yerkes-Dodson Law. The premise is, performance increases relative to motivation only to a point, after which performance drops. Typically, it is drawn as an inverted U-shaped curve where the x-axis is motivation (their word was arousal) and the y-axis is performance.
Low motivation results in low performance. This is not surprising. As your motivation increases, your performance increases–to a point. This point is the sweet spot of optimal performance. Then, as you become more goal-obsessed, performance paradoxically decreases. Goals increase stress and cause you to fixate on the future rather than the present.
Yerkes and Dodson suggest that different tasks require different levels of motivation. For example, physically demanding tasks often require higher levels of motivation. This explains why professional athletes are inclined to be very goal-driven. Even so, as athletes approach major milestones (e.g., 400th home run), their performance drops.
Creativity Has its Own Rewards
Within the business world, Yerkes and Dodson found that intellectually challenging tasks required low levels of motivation. The more creative the work, the less motivation required to hit peak levels of performance.
Interestingly, creativity diminishes when individuals are rewarded (externally motivated) for doing their work. Why? The desire to achieve the goal overtakes the personal interest in the endeavor. A myopic focus on the outcome overshadows the intellectual stimulation of the process. As a result, risk taking becomes reduced and creativity vanishes.
“Working hard” may not be the best way to improve productivity and creativity. Maybe it isn’t even about “working smarter.” As we have seen, perhaps the answer lies in trying less.
Where else have you seen that not “giving it your all” actually improved performance?