Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Setting Too Many Stretch Goals Can Backfire on Managers


Decades of research have supported the idea that specific, high goals boost productivity (pdf) by getting people to work harder, be more persistent, and and perform better.

But financial quarters inevitably end and projects finish, which means that there’s always another difficult target or near-impossible deadline to achieve. Stacking high goals on top of one another can lead to depletion, reduced self-regulation, and unethical behavior, according to a new study (paywall) published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

The research is the first to tie consecutive goal setting, psychological depletion, and ethics together, which matters since unethical behavior can cost businesses billions every year.

The authors tested high, low, increasing, decreasing, and “do your best” goals on a group of 159 undergraduates performing a series of tasks for a monetary reward. High performance goals produced more cheaters, an effect which increased with the number of consecutive goals. Starting with a stretch goal, even if it decreased in later periods, boosted depletion and unethical behavior at a higher rate as well.

Past research on goal-setting informs the way that many firms manage and measure employees. Companies like Google and LinkedIn follow the objectives and key results method, a management system pioneered by Intel where specific, measurable goals are deliberately set at a difficult level.

The other side of improved productivity and performance that results from high goals is an inability to make good decisions, the authors write. When you combine depletion with pressure, and do it over and over again, unethical behavior increases. In other studies, high goals alone have been shown to increase unethical behavior.

Exactly how managers should respond to this research is uncertain. For starters, managers should think about scaling goals up from a relatively low starting point, and avoid clustering stretch goals too close together without a break. But low and poorly-defined goals reduce performance, so more work needs to be done in finding a middle ground.

(Image via forestpath/

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.