Is there any point in setting targets at all? Under what conditions do objectives work? Can’t you do more wrong with them than good? And do objectives work the same way for everyone?

What sensible answers does science have for us to these questions and what practical tips do you have to work with?

Does it make sense to set objectives?

In 2002, Latham and Locke published the conclusions of 35 years of research into the impact of objectives. They found that setting targets does indeed increase performance and, on top of that, the effort people make, the perseverance and the focus with which they work. In order to achieve this effect, however, the objectives must meet a number of basic conditions, otherwise they may even result in poorer performance.

Under what conditions do objectives work?

Latham & Locke mapped out four basic conditions.

1. Setting challenging targets or not?

Whether or not you are good at a task turns out to be crucial in this respect.

For employees who are good at a task, challenging objectives generally lead to better results and more commitment. Don’t challenge them, people tend to perform less well. Do pay attention to the feasibility of the objectives. If employees get the feeling that a target is totally unattainable, most of them just give up from the beginning.

For employees who are not (yet) very good at a task, challenging targets lead to weaker performance. The reason for this is that under pressure people fall back on routines or blocks, which prevents them from learning new and better solutions. Work out ‘learning objectives‘ with them that focus on the way they approach it rather than on the end result. An example of a learning objective is “Find three different ways to perform the same task. Try them out and determine what works best for you”. Work with these kinds of objectives until the employee feels competent in a task and then switch to gradually more challenging objectives.

2. Working with deadlines or not?

Short deadlines create more focus and usually lead to increased efforts. A goal that has to be achieved within the year can therefore be divided into a number of phases, for example per trimester or per month, depending on the focus that you consider necessary. The deadlines have to be met, otherwise they have no effect.

3. Do you want to work in a participatory way or not?

We now assume that when employees set their own objectives, they will automatically be more motivated to achieve them. However, Latham and Locke have shown that targets imposed can be as motivating as targets themselves.

Two comments on this.

  1. Imposed targets are only motivating if their importance is well explained and the employee understands their importance.
  2. When motivated and competent employees are allowed to set their own targets, it is noticeable that they usually set higher targets than their managers would do and also work on them with more motivation.

In short, let your motivated and competent employees set their own targets, but opt for imposed targets for less competent and especially demotivated employees. After all, we know from experience that these employees usually propose objectives that contribute insufficiently to the team objectives. On the other hand, we also know that managers know exactly what they expect from them and are usually not really open to negotiations with these employees. Both factors together often result in very frustrating conversations and are demotivating for both parties. In these cases, it is better for a manager to assume his or her responsibility and clearly indicate what he or she expects on the basis of sound arguments.

4. Do you want to write down your own objectives in a report or system or not?

When people commit themselves publicly to achieving a goal, there is a greater chance that they will keep their word. Therefore, ask your employees:

  1. summarize their objectives at the end of an objective discussion;
  2. to write down their own objectives in a report or in an appropriate system.