By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

One mother’s case for performance measurement

As long-time blog readers might remember, I lost my dad a year ago last September, when he was 89. Since then, my mom, now herself 89, has needed to make the tough transition to being by herself, with kids scattered around the country who come to visit pretty often but  aren't there all the time. She recently sold our family's home and moved into an independent living complex that provides meals, activities, cleaning services and an environment suited for elderly people (e.g. no stairs). Just before Christmas, however, she fell while getting up in the middle of the night. Luckily, she only suffered two hairline fractures and no broken hip, but she is now at a rehab hospital getting physical therapy, which she needs if she is going to be able to continue living independently.

The physical therapy is tough, and she still has a long way to go. Yesterday my sister told me about a conversation my mom had with the physical therapist. She said the physical therapist had been asking her to walk (using a walker) "as long as you can." My mom asked him not to phrase it that way. "Give me a goal," she said. "Tell me you want me to walk for five minutes." My mom said that would motivate her to try harder, to meet that specific goal.

I smiled as I heard my sister recount this story. My mom, in her own life, rediscovered a finding that has been validated by literally hundreds of psychological experiments using different methods and different contexts. Giving people a specific, challenging goal motivates people more than simply telling them to "do your best."

This finding is so well-established in social science that, in a recent paper in the Academy of Management Journal on the research findings in human resources management, the idea that specific goals motivate employees tied for the single finding best established by research. (The other top finding was that structured job interviews asking the same questions of all applicants predict job performance better than unstructured interviews.)

It is this social science finding that is one of the reasons for wanting to use performance measurement in government to help achieve better government performance. Give agency employees specific, challenging targets, and the likelihood of performance improvement improves. By the way, the research shows that if you give people financial rewards for meeting the goal, their motivation increases more, but the motivating effect of goals exists even with no financial rewards attached for meeting the goal.

There are other ways performance measurement can improve government performance as well, but simply the motivating power of goals is something that federal managers should be using in their workplaces -- far more than is the case right now.

The Obama administration's goal for performance measurement in government is to move this away from being a staff exercise between the Office of Management and Budget and agency performance measurement staff, and towards being a management tool program and other managers actually use. Unleashing the motivating power of goals needs to be an important part of this.

Posted on Jan 21, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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