Your Brain On Goals


The theme around “control” at work has been with us since the industrial revolution, when management systems drastically changed. And as the way we work shifts significantly once again, a new debate has emerged over the idea that working outside of the office demands more surveillance from managers. While this need for control under uncertain times is challenging, we know—both scientifically and anecdotally—that the best managers are actually coaches working together to achieve positive outcomes.

By focusing more on outcomes—meaning the productivity and performance of an employee— instead of where, when, and how the person is working, managers can foster stronger relationships, create cultures of trust, and reduce turnover. What’s more, management focused on outcomes is driven by building a habit of identifying what great performance looks like, which creates the results everyone wants. Managers get the outcomes they want by setting goals that are good for the employee as well as the organization.

But goal-setting is a delicate balancing act. Competing goals or goals with competing priorities, for instance, can leave employees unclear on how to proceed. Not being provided certainty creates a heavy cognitive tax that can potentially lead to psychological costs when employees experience brain struggle associated with goal conflict. Indeed, new research indicates that if forced to prioritize conflicting goals, individuals need certainty on which goal is more important so they can act.

In addition, goals with a subjective measurement, like an improvement in attitude or initiative—adjustments that are imperative in today’s work environment—are often difficult to measure and discuss.

To understand how to best set goals, we explored the science of what happens in the brain when you aim for a new target. Getting this right can help managers maximize the ability to build strong hybrid cultures.

Let’s start with the science

The prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that requires optimal conditions for processing and is responsible for complex problem solving and learning new things—is also the part that tracks the value of actions. This means that when we set goals, our brains are evaluating the importance of each goal before and during goal-directed behaviors to determine which ones take priority. When faced with multiple goals, the one with higher value will be prioritized. For example, an employee might have a 12-item task list from their manager and other leaders in the organization.  If one of those items is for the CEO directly, that one may weigh more in the employee’s mind based on perceived recognition—regardless of the priorities of other tasks.

The value of goals can vary according to personal desire. But unless organizational goals match intrinsic goals, those goals will be competing for your employee’s precious and often finicky brain power.

What to think about when setting goals

In the context of hybrid work, setting goals works best when managers create goals with four brain-friendly aspects in mind:

  1. Make goals easy to recall: One of our great joys at NLI is creating “sticky” ways of thinking about the brain and work. Sticky in this case is akin to Facebook memes that you remember years later; it sticks in your brain, and you access it regularly. To make goals sticky, they must be simple and easily retrievable—such as one of our own goals at NLI, “think tomorrow, act today.” When they’re sticky, there’s an increased likelihood that we’ll accomplish them. Sticky, as Microsoft discovered, takes less cognitive effort to recall. What we can easily retrieve creates unconscious priming, conscious self-calibration, and continuous sharing. These three non-obvious benefits of sticky goals can lead to habit formation and, ultimately, behavior change.
  2. Strive for goals to stretch: Goals at the end of our reach, or slightly beyond, are more impactful than low-hanging fruit, according to an 11-year study on goal-setting, which found: “In 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, “do your best” goals, or no goals. Goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development. Goal setting is most likely to improve task performance when the goals are specific and sufficiently challenging.” The goal of a stretch assignment should be to shift both individual and organizational thinking  and to underscore the notion that if you work hard at challenging goals, appropriate rewards will follow. A word of caution, though, on stretch goals: some research has linked them to cheating and unethical behavior, because employees see them as a quick path to get ahead and adopt a “do whatever it takes” mentality. Given the resource limitations of many organizations dealing with “The Great Resignation,” it can be difficult to take on stretch challenges without “real work” suffering. Leaders need to identify stretch projects as career opportunities, and then fulfill incentives if the assignment is done well. Unsurprisingly, most work elements improve with the right incentives, and it can be detrimental to culture and morale to stretch someone and then fail to deliver on promised incentives.
  3. Keep goals streamlined: While you want goals to be challenging, that doesn’t mean they have to be complicated. Think about looking for something in an over-crowded junk drawer. When there is too much clutter, it becomes difficult to retrieve anything quickly. Our brains have limits, so minimizing the amount of information people need to process at any given time will maximize their attention to the tasks that matter. An employee should consistently be focused on two to three key goals relevant to both their career development and the growth of the business. You can test the ease of recall by opening every meeting by walking through the core goals. If an employee can’t remember all the goals you’re tracking, that’s an indicator it’s too many.
  4. Model what goals should look like: Managers want to achieve greatness, so goals should provide clarity on what ‘great’ looks like. This can be a challenging type of goal-setting, though, because managers often don’t know what great looks like. There are some goals where “great” may be easy to quantify, such as improving cost-saving measures over time, but others as we mentioned above, like attitude adjustments, which are difficult to measure. Managers can start by modeling what great can look like to their teams.

One approach is for managers to role model a growth mindset—the belief that skills can be improved over time, rather than set from birth. With a growth mindset you believe you can get better, and self-efficacy is a factor in goal achievement. In this way, “great” means “consistent improvement” which helps frame the concept of goal setting as an evolution. That mindset is particularly important because organizational goals change with market, strategy adjustments, new leaders, product pivots, and more. Employees need to adopt a growth mindset because even their most dearly-held goals might have to change. That’s why it’s helpful to establish “have to” goals versus “want to” goals. Self-determined choice has an impact on goal performance, so if you want your people to achieve great things, make sure they have a say in determining what great looks like.

The way goals are discussed also matters. As noted in a panel at the 2017 NLI Summit, projecting your goals in a team environment can unconsciously generate competition among people with shared goals. This means that goal-setting is not an all-hands agenda item, or a team meeting agenda item. These discussions are best at the one-on-one, manager-employee level to improve team functioning while still driving individual growth.

The bottom line

Goal setting is an absolute requirement for effective hybrid work and can be brain-friendly, or not. Choose great goals together, make them sticky, limit them to a few, and stretch lightly. With the power of neuroscience, get the outcomes you—and your employees—want.

Authors: Joy VerPlanck, D.E.T. , Ted Bauer

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