Effective Goals CAN Fly Under the Radar

Topic: Goals, Job Performance
Publication: Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
Article: An exploratory field experiment of the effect of subconscious and conscious goals
on employee performance.
Author: A. Shantz, G.P. Latham
Featured by: Benjamin Granger

Do subconscious goals lead to improved employee performance? What exactly are subconscious goals?  Unlike conscious goals, employees are unaware of subconscious goals. When they become aware of them, they become conscious goals. In other words, subconscious goals may drive employee behavior automatically as they are below their conscious awareness.

In order to test the idea that subconscious goals can lead to improved employee performance, Shantz and Latham (2009) used a technique that is known as priming.  Priming is a method (often used by psychological researchers and savvy managers of course) of manipulating an individual’s goals without them being aware of it. For example, in their study, Shantz and Latham used a large color photo of a woman winning a race (picture of Sonia O’Sullivan). In the pilot stages of the study, simply viewing this photo led study participants to brainstorm more uses of a coat hangar than those who did not view the picture (fascinating, don’t you think?).

Importantly, Shantz and Latham put subconscious goals to the test using employees from a university fund-raising call center. The authors predicted that a primed subconscious goal to achieve (from viewing the race photo) would lead to improved employee performance just as a conscious goal would. As expected, the findings of Shantz and Latham’s study suggest that primed subconscious goals led employees to raise significantly more money from donors than employees who were given a general “do your best” goal. “Now wait…Are you saying that a photo of a woman winning a race actually led some employees to raise more money!?”  Believe it or not, YES!  Shantz and Latham concluded their article by endorsing the use of achievement-related posters (posters that say “Achieve” or “Determination” with an eagle flying over a snowcapped mountain), mouse pads, screensavers, etc.  All in all, even when below our radar of awareness, primed subconscious goals can lead to improved performance (at least in the short run).

Shantz, A., & Latham, G.P. (2009). An exploratory field experiment of the effect of
subconscious and conscious goals on employee performance. Organizational  Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109, 9-17.