Goal Setting Goes with … Cheating?

From Wharton Business School comes an interesting discussion about the dark side of goal setting.

From childhood on, individuals are told that setting goals for themselves will make them more diligent, more focused and generally more successful in whatever they set out to do — whether it's win tennis games, ace their exams or become CEO of their company.

But goal-setting also has a dark side to it, according to a recent research paper by a Wharton faculty member and two colleagues. In addition to motivating constructive behavior, goal setting — especially when it involves rewards — can motivate unethical behavior when people fall short of the goals they set or that are set for them. The relationship between goal setting and unethical behavior is particularly strong when people fall just short of reaching the goal.

I believe this happens a lot. I used to work at a place where the salaried engineers got overtime, but only if they worked at least five hours a week. If they hit 45, they got paid for 45, but if they hit 41-44, they got paid for 40. What do you think happened if people hit 44? They put down 45. I knew several people who did it, one guy did it almost every week. He came in on Saturdays and surfed the web for 2-3 hours, said he worked 5, then came in and worked his normal week later that week. But back to the study, there were some interesting findings.

People with unmet goals were more likely to overstate the performance than people in the do-your-best condition.

Although the authors hypothesized that people with unmet 'reward goals' would be more likely to overstate performance than people with unmet 'mere goals,' this did not turn out to be the case. There was no significant difference between the two. Schweitzer suggests, however, that while mere goals "alone will motivate unethical behavior, reward goals will give it an extra kick."

People who failed to reach their goals by a small margin were more likely to falsely claim to have reached their goals than people who failed to reach their goals by a large margin.

That is why I really try to hire honest people. There are some people who just can't lie, and can't even fudge the truth. Mrs. Businesspundit is one such person. Back in her audit days, she frequently received pressure from CFOs and Controllers who were upset with things she found to write up. She wrote them up anyway. It's hard to stand up for what is right, but in my opinion if you cheat and win, you didn't really win.

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