Have you ever been asked or chosen to share a personal goal with a group–like teammates or coworkers–or with a trusted friend? The likely purpose was to use your social environment to create a greater sense of motivation or accountability towards reaching your goal. Did it work? Maybe–but maybe not. There’s research on personal differences and the nature of goals that may explain why you did or didn’t achieve your goal, but it’s unclear how and when social influence contributes to goal commitment, and ultimately performance. Researchers (Klein, Lount, Park, & Linford, 2020) conducted four mixed-method studies to help understand how the goal audience–or whom you share your goal with–can impact success.
GOAL COMMITMENT AND GOAL ATTAINMENT
Sharing goals publicly, such as through managers, mentors, and teammates, has been commonplace since 1950s research connected publicly-made goals to goal commitment. But the connection between public goals and actual goal striving, or making progress, and goal attainment has been less clear in the literature. The present researchers hypothesize that the impact of making goals public is dependent on how goal-holders perceive the status of their audience. The status of the audience in turn influences the goal-holder’s evaluation apprehension, or the extent to which a person feels concern related to being positively or negatively judged by the audience. In short, the more goal-holders care about the audience’s judgement of their performance, the more likely they are to exhibit more goal striving behaviors and achieve their goals.
To test these hypotheses, the authors conducted a series of studies on undergraduate students that involved both task-based and career-based goals. When participants were completing a task goal of moving a slider on a computer screen as quickly as possible, goal commitment and performance was higher when their goal progress was monitored by a high status individual versus being monitored by a lower status individual or by no one at all. The participants also indicated heightened evaluation apprehension when the high status individual was aware of the goal. And notably, those in the lower status group did not have increased goal commitment, showing the importance of audience status and its relationship with evaluation apprehension.
These findings were further replicated using longer-term goals, which better represented “real-life” or “important” goals for the participants. Participants chose a goal related to coursework performance and an audience for their goal, and researchers tracked their commitment and progress over 5 weeks. In this more realistic setting, participants who selected higher-status audiences had greater goal commitment and higher overall performance in their courses.
While these studies were conducted using undergraduate students, the multiple samples, settings, and methods provide consistent evidence for the relationship between audience status and goal commitment and attainment.
In a separate survey study of working adults, the authors also found that individuals are more likely than not to share a career-related goal with another individual, and it’s more likely for that individual to have a higher status than the goal-holder. Therefore, it would benefit those in performance management and learning & development to leverage these goal-sharing behaviors in formal goal and performance programs. Goal-sharing in the performance management process can help employees commit to and strive towards their goals, as a manager can serve as a high status, evaluative audience.
Employees can also be guided in how to share their developmental goals with those who are more likely to motivate them to achieve. Further, this research argues against keeping private goals and untargeted goal-sharing or sharing goals with anyone conveniently available.
More broadly, the researchers also take note of the changing work climate, in which more emphasis is placed on self-management and empowerment. This type of work setting may pose a threat to goal commitment, as more of the onus is placed on the individual to seek appropriate social influence to stay motivated and perform well. The findings of this study can help HR professionals equip employees with guidance and programming to help them commit to and make progress on their goals, which ultimately leads to higher performance for their organization.
Klein, H.J, Lount, R.B., Jr., Park, H.M., & Linford, B.J. (2020). When goals are known: The effects of audience relative status on goal commitment and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(4), 372-389.