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By Steve Kelman

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How measurement motivates, part 2

measurement tool

In my last blog post, I noted that the idea of using performance measures as a way to motivate employees to meet challenging goals is the most underused performance-improvement tool federal managers have. I promised I would share some further research findings. This topic has been well researched by scholars (led by Gary Latham of the University of Toronto and Ed Locke of the University of Maryland).

So here goes:

1) Although attaching a monetary award to achievement of a goal motivates greater improvements in performance, the motivating role of a challenging goal occurs even without monetary award. This is particularly relevant in government, where the ability to give such contingent monetary rewards is often lacking.

2) The most motivating goals are neither too easy (if they are easy to achieve, they don’t motivate) nor impossible (people will give up, and not be motivated). The most effective goals are moderate “stretch goals.”

3) One exception to the rule that performance goals are the best way to motivate is if a person is trying to learn a new task they can’t already do. In such cases, learning goals (trying some number of new strategies) motivate better than performance goals for doing the task.

4) There was a debate for a number of years between two scholars about whether it was necessary for employees to participate in establishing the goals in order for them to be motivating. The scholars finally agreed on an experiment to settle the dispute, and here’s what they found: for goals to motivate, employees must buy in to them, but participation in goal-setting is only one of the ways to get employee buy-in.

All right, given we’re talking furloughs in the government, I suspect it’s not the greatest time to be discussing motivating federal employees. I am writing about this topic now only because it came up in executive education at the Kennedy School. But improving the performance of our organizations is the best contribution feds can make to reduce the likelihood of furloughs. Performance improvement, in an important sense, gets to the root of the discontent with government that ends up producing things like furloughs.

Posted on Feb 15, 2013 at 12:09 PM


Reader comments

Sun, Feb 17, 2013 Jeff Myers Washington

Steve, is there any distinction in the research between people participating in setting goals for themselves as individuals , and (government) organizations setting goals for themselves? I have long suspected that, for individuals, their self-interest in setting a low hurdle may be counterbalanced by a supervisor who knows their work well, and whom it may be hard to fool. In contrast, I suspect that organizations may not be as well understood, and have more diffuse stakeholders. Thus I suspect that many government agencies set less rigorous stretch goals, and define less useful measures for themselves. So my question is - is there any research that confirms or rejects my suspicion?

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