Subconscious Goal Setting: Pursuing Goals Without Even Knowing It

Topic: Goals
Publication: Journal of Management (JAN 2010)
Article: The relevance and viability of subconscious goals in the workplace
Authors: G.P. Latham, A.D. Stajkovic, and E.A. Locke
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that goal-setting is an effective strategy for improving employee performance. What you might not know is that goal-setting research is moving outside of the boundaries of human consciousness.  That’s right, a new line of research has recently emerged on what is known as subconscious goal-setting. Remember the stories of movie theaters mixing frames of popcorn in their previews clips to get the audience to visit the concession stand?  Subconscious goal setting works a bit like that.  Although it may sound a little ‘out there’, support is building for its effectiveness in the workplace.

In a recent review of subconscious goal setting, Latham, Stajkovic, and Locke (2010) discuss the history of research on the human subconscious (outside of an employee’s conscious awareness – Freud may come to mind?!), reasons why management researchers have largely neglected it, and recent research on subconscious goal setting in work contexts.

Latham and colleagues conclude that subconscious goals can lead to improved performance in work settings. Additionally, unlike conscious goals (e.g., “My goal is to…”), subconscious goals do not use up employees’ mental resources. And we all know how quickly our mental resources can be drained at work. But best of all, subconscious goal setting is easy.  Managers can prime subconscious goals by simply inserting strategic words into training manuals (e.g., “customer focus”, “generate sales”) or distributing achievement-related posters or mouse pads (e.g., person winning a race) throughout the workplace.  Amazingly, these things can impact employee performance at work!

But, doesn’t this seem just a little bit scary?  While subconscious goal setting is certainly intriguing, it does pose a serious ethical dilemma, which Latham and colleagues acknowledge. Now, where’s my popcorn….

Latham, G.P., Stajkovic, A.D., & Locke, E.A. (2010). The relevance and viability of subconscious goals in the workplace. Journal of Management, 36, 234-255.