Goals vs. the Ostrich: When Employees Refuse to Track Progress

Some people suffer from the Ostrich Problem. This problem occurs whenever someone knowingly shies away from information that would help them track progress toward a set goal. Despite all the evidence that supports the value of tracking workplace performance, some would simply rather bury their heads in the sand and pretend that everything is hunky dory. These employees prefer not to monitor their progress towards goals set by the organization, even though setting goals and monitoring them is central to good project management, allowing an organization to successfully hit targets. Why then is it that certain people categorically avoid tracking their progress in terms of achieving goals?

The current article suggests that there are situations when people are especially motivated to rebuff information that will point out how far along they have progressed toward their goal. It appears that when an individual feels a strong need to maintain a favorable self-image, the Ostrich Problem is most likely to occur. Another possibility of the Ostrich Problem occurring is when a person has low expectations from the progress report or if they are low on self confidence. At times, information would call for a change in action to achieve the goal and determines a lag in progress and hence is actively avoided. Gaining information that will point out a discrepancy in the current state and desired state could further lower self confidence and result in complete abandonment of their goal; thus, the information is avoided.

There are three important factors that affect the extent and quality of tracking progress. Being aware of these factors might help individuals consciously avoid the Ostrich Problem and in so doing help them achieve their project goals. The factors are:

  1. how important the goal is,
  2. how much patience one is willing to exercise till the goal is achieved, and
  3. situational factors (monetary, environmental, etc.) that affect how one behaves in order to reach the target.

The Ostrich Problem should not be confused with instances where the information regarding progress is hard to come by. To illustrate this point, think about an individual who aims at reducing air pollution. Checking levels of pollutants in the air is not only a complex process in itself, but also collating the required information is a difficult task and might be hard to assess. Therefore although the individual might attempt to gather information, the effort will soon diminish due to level of complexity. The Ostrich Problem only exists when information about progress is easily available but is not considered.

At the organization level, employees will often avoid feedback or refuse information that tracks their progress, when they feel they might lose control over their current situation (moved away from a project, or shift in work location). Also, as the current research suggests, employees with low self-confidence and low expectations are most likely candidates of the Ostrich Problem. Bearing this information in mind, project managers can adapt their methods for providing feedback. Keeping employees motivated through the feedback process is of utmost importance while working towards a common goal.

The Ostrich Problem has only recently gained momentum in the research world and there’s a long way to go before a definite means can be suggested to avoid this problem. However, in the interim, understanding the motives of those who refuse to track progress towards goals can help us to make headway.