A Fluff-Free Approach for Employees to Connect With Work Goals

Given how stressed and burned out people are these days, let’s make employees’ 2022 goals better than the typical perfunctory and mindless ones. That sounds harsh, but as we know from the study ”Are SMART Goals Dumb?,” only 14% of people say that their goals for this year will help them achieve great things.

One of the bigger reasons that goals are typically so inadequate is a lack of emotional connection. If you were to ask the typical employee to describe why they care about their goal, the vast majority would say, “I don’t care” or “My boss cares about this goal, not me.”

The sad reality is that most people don’t have a deep emotional connection to their goal. The goal doesn’t tug at their heartstrings, it doesn’t elicit strong emotions, and it doesn’t feel like anyone would be terribly disappointed if the goal were abandoned.

Based on the thousands of people who’ve taken the test “Do You Set SMART Goals or HARD Goals?,” we know that someone with a strong emotional connection to their goal is 1.3 to 1.8 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goals than people with weak emotional connections.

Fortunately, you can make quick progress on fixing this by making your employees (or yourself) answer two questions about the goal.  

The first question is, “Why do you care about this goal?” 

There are a million legitimate reasons why someone might care about their goal, and any of them are fine as long as the goal-setter is the one who cares about the goal. It shouldn’t be their boss, spouse, or doctor who cares most deeply about the goal; they need to have a personal connection to the goal. It may take someone a few minutes of deep thinking to generate some reasons why they ought to care, but it’s an exercise well worth the time.

The second question is, “Who besides you would benefit from you achieving this goal?” 

When someone feels an obligation to another person for the achievement of their goal, they’re generally more motivated because there’s some extra pressure to stick with the goal even when things get tough. The key, however, is that the beneficiary has to be an individual and not a generic group like customers, stakeholders, or colleagues.

One of the great psychologists of our time, the late Amos Tversky, conducted a study with Donald Redelmeier to see if physicians would recommend different treatments to patients if they thought about them as unique individuals rather than as anonymous members of a group of people with the same medical issues. 

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Physicians were given different medical scenarios and asked to choose the most appropriate treatment. There were two versions of each scenario: One described an individual patient, the other described a group of patients. Here are examples:

The individual perspective. H.B. is a young woman well known to her family physician and free from any serious illnesses. She contacts her family physician by phone because of five days of fever without any localizing symptoms. A tentative diagnosis of viral infection is made, symptomatic measures are prescribed, and she is told to stay “in touch.” After about 36 hours she phones back reporting feeling about the same: no better, no worse, no new symptoms. The choice must be made between continuing to follow her a little longer by telephone or else telling her to come in now to be examined. Which management strategy would you select for H.B.?

The group perspective. Consider young women who are well known to their family physicians and free from any serious illnesses. They might contact their respective family physicians by phone because of five days of fever without any localizing symptoms. Frequently a tentative diagnosis of viral infection is made, symptomatic measures are prescribed, and they are told to stay “in touch.” Suppose that after about 36 hours they phone back reporting feeling about the same: no better, no worse, no new symptoms. The choice must be made between continuing to follow them a little longer by telephone or else telling them to come in now to be examined. Which management strategy would you recommend?

Notice the difference? In the first scenario, you’re thinking about H.B., an individual patient. In the second scenario, you’re thinking about a group of patients.

Now, here’s the shocking outcome of the study: Physicians who read the group scenarios recommended just sticking with phone follow-up anywhere from two to six times as often as those who read the individual scenario! When you see somebody as an individual rather than as an anonymous member of a group, you’re far more likely to go the extra mile to help them.

The point of asking the aforementioned two questions is to get our brains more attached and emotionally connected to our goals. The more we care, the harder we’ll work to achieve our goals, and the less likely we’ll be to quit on them. Plus, people who achieve their goals are generally far happier than those who don’t. And in a world where most people could use an extra dose of good feelings, it’s worth our time to improve everyone’s goals.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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