Truth #15 About Managing People: Telling People to "Do Your Best" Isn't Likely to Achieve Their Best
A friend of mine, who manages a group of software programmers in Seattle, was recently telling me what a great staff he had and how much faith he had in them. "When I hand out an assignment, I merely tell my people, 'Do your best. No one can ask more of you than that.'" I think my friend was a bit perplexed when I told him that wasn't the best way to motivate his staff. I felt pretty confident in telling him that he would have better success by giving specific and challenging goals to each employee or work team.
There is a mountain of evidence that tells us that people perform best when they have goals. More to the point, we can say that specific goals increase performance; that difficult goals, when accepted, result in higher performance than do easy goals; and that feedback leads to higher performance than does nonfeedback.
Specific hard goals produce a higher level of output than does the generalized goal of "do your best." It's the specificity of the goal itself that acts as an internal stimulus. Goals tell employees what needs to be done and how much effort they'll need to expend to achieve it. For instance, if my Seattle friend's software programmers committed to complete their current project by the last business day of next month, they would now have a specific objective to try to attain. We can say that, all things being equal, the individual or team with a specific goal will outperform his or her counterparts operating with no goals or the generalized goal of "do your best."
If factors such as ability and acceptance of the goals are held constant, we can also state with confidence that the more difficult the goal, the higher the level of performance. More difficult goals encourage people to extend their reach and work harder. Of course, it's logical to assume that easier goals are more likely to be accepted. But once an employee accepts a hard task, he or she is likely to exert a high level of effort to achieve it. The challenge for managers is to have employees see difficult goals as attainable.
There is considerable evidence that tells us that people will do better when they get feedback on how well they're progressing toward their goals because feedback helps to identify discrepancies between what they've accomplished and what they want to do. That is, feedback acts to guide behavior. But all feedback is not equally potent. Self-generated feedbackwhere an employee is able to monitor his or her own progresshas been shown to be a more powerful motivator than externally generated feedback from a boss or coworkers.
One final point before we leave this topic: our claims about the power of goals is culture bound. Goals are well adapted to countries such as the United States and Canada because they mesh well with North American cultures. Goals require employees to be reasonably independent and employers to put a high importance on performance. Those requirements are not necessarily true in every country. For instance, don't expect goals to necessarily lead to higher employee performance in countries such as Portugal or Chile.