You’re a Liar!

Unethical Behavior and Goal Setting

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 You’re a LIAR! Unethical Behavior and Goal Setting

Almost all organizations mandate some level of goal setting.  A barf bag should come standard with the acronym SMART as it relates to goals.  We all know that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.  And, the logic goes, that if we develop SMART goals, we’ll up our motivation and conquer the unthinkable!  What we don’t know is that SMART goals have a dark side.  In fact, Professor Schweitzer and colleagues found that embracing goals often comes with telling some fat ole lies.  Check here for the full document.

The Research

These devious social scientists put 154 undergraduates through the paces.  Specifically, these guinea pigs were assigned to one of three conditions in a scrabble-like game.  In the first condition, they were told to just do their best to unscramble as many words as possible from a 7 letter start point.  In the second condition, they were assigned just a mere goal—that most other students could come up with 9 words from those 7 letters and to prove that they weren’t wasting their parents’ money on their education should strive for at least that.  In the third condition, the students were shown the money and given a SMART goal; they’d get $2 for every word they generated, which equates to one Old Milwaukee per word.  Now, at the Kimono, we call that motivation! Through it all, they self-reported and graded their own work.  In a clever twist, though, the professors coded answer sheets in a way that they could tell who lied about chopping down the cherry tree and those that didn’t fib.

Lying Your Way to the Goal Line

Their results are intriguing.  First, and for sure, goals work.  Those students earning bank made, on average, 6.17 words to the “give it your best” sample of 5.46 words.  The relationship proved statistically significant meaning the differences can’t be explained by chance.  Second, they found that the guinea pigs with unmet goals were more likely to lie and overstate their performance than those in the simple “do your best” category.  Finally, it appears that as we get closer and closer to a goal, but still miss, it becomes easier to rationalize and let a lie slip.  After all, what’s a tiny fib?!  Remarkably, the students that were assigned the goal of hitting at least 9 words were most likely to overstate their productivity when they had created 8 valid words!  Put simply, if a student was far away from hitting 9 words, he’d just mail it in and concede defeat.  However, if the student was close to hitting 9 words, they would kinda just round up and say ‘close enough’ and self-report success! 

What Gets Measured Gets Done (By Any Means)

This research offers us some meaningful lessons.  Notably, goals are always assumed to be good, in a way that drives effort and, quite often, directly contributes to individual and organizational success.  This paper supports another potential scenario—YES, goals drive behavior but, sometimes, that behavior is unethical.  And the closer we come to hitting the target, the easier it is for us all to lie just a little bit to make that last tiny inch.  At the Kimono, we suggest that we all think carefully about the unintended consequences of pushing goals.  Just maybe, SMART goals aren’t that smart after all. 

Three Cheers for the Kimono!

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