Stretch Goals: Careful Timing Required

Organizational leaders are often interested in “spicing up” their employees’ jobs, as a way to challenge them and increase the variety of work tasks they complete. One way in which organizations often do this is through the use of challenging job assignments, or “stretch goals.” These assignments are designed to challenge employees, to encourage them to learn new skills or think in new ways, and, hopefully, to facilitate professional growth. Research has supported the effectiveness of challenging job assignments for improving job performance; however, almost all research in this area has been done with individuals early in their careers. The authors of the present study were interested on the effect that challenging job assignments would have on mid-career employees.

The authors suspected that stretch goals may not be as effective for middle-career individuals as they are for early-career individuals. Yes, indeed — challenging job assignments, particularly those involving an area of expertise that the mid-career employee has limited experience in, can harm, slightly, the job performance of mid-career individuals.

This study was not large and represents first steps in this area, so it would wise to take these findings with a grain of salt. Still, at first blush, it appears that career stage may play an important role in the wisdom of challenging work goals.

What do you think about the timing of stretch goals? Is anytime a good time or are stretch goals best for newbies?