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What's the evidence for... goal setting?

In January many of us set personal goals. For once Rob Briner is on board with doing this at work too

There’s nothing some people enjoy more than a good debunking. This column has been fun for them because that’s what it’s been doing: examining dodgy HR practices that cannot be justified by existing evidence. Others are not so thrilled. “Come on,” you’ve been saying. “Stop telling us what doesn’t work and start telling us what does.”

However, I chose to focus on over-hyped practices for a reason. Becoming more evidence-based means doing stuff that (on the basis of the best available evidence) is more likely to work. But here’s the thing – it’s impossible to be evidence-based if you are unable to judge whether, given the evidence, a claim is reasonable.

It seems that HR needs to get better at this kind of critical thinking. What tells me there’s room for improvement? First, evidence-based professions treat new-fangled things with caution and scepticism. HR enthusiastically adopts fads, yet by their very nature new-fangled things cannot be well-supported by evidence. I even heard an HR leader argue strongly that fads are actually good for the function because they motivate action. Astounding.

Second, evidence-based professions only identify a ‘best practice’ if there is solid evidence. In HR best practices are usually identified by copying the actions of successful organisations. This is flimsy at best. Knowing the methods of successful businesses tells us nothing about whether those practices are effective or whether they will work for us.

Another indicator is the use of weak evidence to justify professional decisions. In a debate on employee engagement some HR practitioners (all of whom had implemented engagement initiatives) disagreed with my analysis. They were certain that higher engagement leads to higher performance. I asked each why they were so sure. In a range of surprising answers one was truly shocking – “You can just feel it.” I asked what he meant and, yes, he meant that his personal observations proved the causal link between engagement and performance.

Even more shocking than his answer was the reaction of the other HR practitioners in the room, which was absolutely no reaction at all. As though this was fine. Evidence-based professionals would not regard that as acceptable.

Anyhow, I’ll lay off the debunking for a while. Instead let’s look at the evidence for an HR practice that relatively-speaking, works. Goal setting.

What’s the problem it aims to fix?

The problem it aims to fix is a problem almost every organisation thinks it has: low performance or could-do-better performance.

What is it?

The underlying principles of goal setting are beautifully simple. It’s thought that if a person has specific and difficult goals their performance will be higher than a person who has vague, easy or ‘do your best’ goals. In a sense that’s all there is to goal setting. However, in practice it’s a bit more complicated.

Does it work?

You bet. Evidence for the basic principles of goal setting is strong and plentiful. Studies conducted in many settings across many occupations have replicated the basic findings. As evidence for HR practices goes it just doesn’t get any better. No debunking needed. Here’s a practice that actually really works.

But hold on, will it work for your organisation? With all your employees? For all types of performance? With no negative effects?

Of course not. It always depends. In this case it depends on factors such as employees’ knowledge, skill and resources (goals can be too difficult), job complexity (goal setting is not so effective in complex jobs), and timely and accurate feedback (staff need to know about goal progress). And yes, there are downsides. One is that desired employee behaviours that are not required to attain those goals that have been set are less likely to occur.

Asking “what works?” is an important question. But the answer is never as straightforward as some people would like it to be. Even when there is good research evidence that something works it should not be mindlessly adopted. Whether something works always depends and there are always downsides. Why am I so sure that’s right? I can just feel it.

Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath's School of Management and a founding member of the Center for Evidence-Based Management