Goal Setting And Group Performance

August 16, 2011

Some fascinating new research on the effect of goal setting on group performance was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (full citation below). The authors conducted a meta-analysis of 131 previously published studies on goal setting.

Goal setting and group performance by BretSimmons

The results show that the worst thing you can do for group performance is to set nonspecific goals. Even easy, specific goals are better for group performance than nonspecific goals. Setting specific difficult goals has the best effect on group performance. Specific goals supported by specific metrics send employees unambiguous and consistent signals about expected performance behaviors.

The most interesting finding to me was that “egocentric goals (aimed at maximizing individual performance) undermine group performance, whereas groupcentric goals (aimed at maximizing the individual contribution to the group) enhance group performance” (p. 7). Goals that force team members to compete with each other undermine group performance.  “When group performance matters, egocentric goals would best be framed as to emphasize the individual contribution to the group” (p. 8).

Select people that value collaboration over competition.  Train them in the knowledge and skills they need to work better with others. Challenge your teams to set high standards for their shared performance, and reward the members that do the most to help the team succeed. Think very carefully about the message you send by rewarding individual performance when the team fails.

Full citation: Kleingeld, A., van Mierlo, H., and Arends, L. (2011). The Effect of Goal Setting on Group Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology.

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Comments (12)

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  1. Susan Mazza says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this research Bret. One all to common challenge is getting past the beliefs embedded in the reward systems that foster competitive behavior despite the desire to foster collaborative behavior.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I agree, Susan. For some reason there is a strong belief that competition amongst employees is a good thing. The research shows clearly that if those employees are on the same team or even part of the same group, competition is misguided. Never made sense to me why you would want to create a system that calls a few people winners and everyone else losers. Thanks! Bret

  2. davidburkus says:

    I’m reading Amabile’s new one in preparation for our interview. That’s probably why I see the connection, but I do think there is a connection between setting specific goals and the progress principle. Mainly, once people know where to go, they can better gauge their progress.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I need to get busy reading that book too! Thanks, Bret

    davidburkus Reply:

    Or just listen to our Podcast next month. ; )

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I will do that too! Hope to have the book read before then.

  3. Rod Johnson says:

    Brett, interesting analysis that makes a lot of sense. However, I’m uncertain how to use this methodology in most sales organizations. Most sales organizations have a combination of individual and group goals/quotas. Quite often, commissions and other rewards are tied to individual goals, and in turn are rolled up into the group. And since sales personnel are held accountable to “their numbers” I’m confused how honoring the individual and group could be accomplished.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    This is a tough message for sales. I’ve worked sales, and there was a strong belief that sales folks won’t perform without big carrots and sticks. I think that’s a false assumption. I worked in an organization where as each sales person optimized their incentives, the organization was sub-optimized. Thanks, Rod! Bret

  4. Teddy says:

    Interesting finding that groups going after a common goal vs. competing against each other produces better results.

    I guess companies should reward a team sales record vs. an individual sales record. Good info. Hopefully more businesses will implement

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Teddy. Not all companies use a team sales approach. Those that do need to make sure they encourage group behaviors over individual behaviors. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  5. Susan says:

    I get how companies think that making employees compete will push them into working harder and doing their best, but ultimately, this only means they’ll be focusing only on themselves and their own goals, not the good of the entire group.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Susan. I know companies think that individual competition is the only way to go, but too few consider how that effects the group and shared goals. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bret