Many management techniques are inconsistent with the science of human behavior. “Stretch Targets” are a great example. Managers give stretch targets to their staff to ensure that they work “really” hard. The science of human behavior tells us that stretch targets will likely have the exact opposite result. Let’s break it down.

Managers are often fearful of giving achievable targets to their staff for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they assume that once the target is achieved, the staff member will stop trying. The whole idea of “my job is done, time to go home”. Second, if the target is achieved, the manager will wonder what they have left on the table. If only they had made the target just a bit higher, could they have captured those results as well?

Let me illustrate why this thinking is wrong. This past weekend, my youngest son qualified for the provincial swim championships by swimming faster than the qualifying standard.  This has been a target of his for 4 years. Conventional thinking (as laid out above) suggests that when he hit that target he would be satisfied in his achievement and stop trying. The opposite happened. Once he hit the target, his confidence and commitment to swimming went UP not DOWN. In each of the next 3 races he swam (different events), he hit the provincial qualifying standard.  On Sunday night, after the meet was over and we were ‘celebrating’ (talking about) his success, he volunteered his next target. He told me that he thought he could get a western qualifying time in February and believes that he can get a national qualifying time by late spring.  He even started mapping out a plan on how to get there which included diet and sleep.  Now, I don’t know if he will get those results, but I do know that he is fired up, and the success he had in the pool this weekend is likely to carry him through the rest of the season.

Now let’s pretend I subscribed to the “management theory” of stretch targets. I would have told him before the weekend that I expected him to qualify for nationals by spring. I would have had to give him that target in order to ‘ensure’ that he tried his hardest at this meet. I pay a lot for swimming and I don’t want him to leave anything on the table.  Remember that he has been struggling to get the easier provincial time for 4 years, but my expectations would have been for nationals.  If he failed to do well, I would expect him to give me an explanation as to his failure. It is unlikely that he would have made the breakthrough, or even if he did, he still would have felt like a loser and not a winner.   On the way home from the meet, whatever the results he had, he would have told me all the reasons he CANNOT make Nationals.  Why wouldn’t he manage expectations? After all, he doesn’t want to feel like a loser and expecting a national qualifying time was setting him up to lose.

So how does this translate into the workplace?  Our shared DNA does not change from the swimming pool to the factory floor, to the board room. If you want someone to demonstrate all the behaviors of a winner… make them a winner! Start with an achievable target. Let your staff pick the target but temper their excitement if they pick something too hard.  When they hit their target… celebrate! It doesn’t have to be fancy or big… often an acknowledgment of the victory is good enough.

This happened just a few years ago with a client I started working with.  I was asked to work with a department who had been the bottleneck of their manufacturing process.  It wasn’t long after I started with them that they had ramped up production so much that they were starved for work.  We set it up so that every time they ran out of work, the Team Lead would shut down the lights in the department and send everyone into the coffee room for carrot cake. After a short celebration (break), they would make out a plan to get even better. They cleaned and calibrated their machines, taught each other tips and tricks, practiced difficult set-ups, worked on reducing scrap etc. They didn’t stop working, they started working smarter, faster, and better. In fact, by the time they were done, that department could produce 2X the product than they ever could before.

It is amazing what happens when you set up people to win. They turn into winners.