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John Rice

Bowland Solutions

Sales & Marketing Director

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Do goals & targets limit high performance?


My fellow Director, Brendan Walsh, shares his experiences from his passion for cycling, as he contemplates what makes a good goal for a high achiever.

I am a member of a cycling club. Every now and again a topic will come up which can be summed up as …. “if I know I am cycling 50 miles then I tend to be exhausted at mile 48. If I know I am cycling 75 miles then I am fine at mile 48. Why is that?”. With modern technology recording every pedal stroke I can assure you this isn’t simply a matter of the pace you cycle at. There is something about how the mind starts to feel as it approaches a goal – a relaxation and a tendency to prepare for the end. It would be devastating to be told to cycle another 25 miles if you had been told the distance was only 50. You just wouldn’t be “up for it”.

In a similar vein, Peter (our head of technology delivery) is training to run the Edinburgh marathon. He recently ran the Stafford half marathon and was aiming to get inside 2 hours for the first time over that distance. He timed 2 hours and 3 seconds (I won’t mention that his wife berated him at the finishing line for not sprinting the last bit!). Last weekend – just a fortnight or so later – he ran 17 miles in training … and went past the half marathon distance at 1 hour and 44 minutes.

Clearly many factors are at play here but for anyone who has run, cycled or trained for a physical endurance event the story is ironic but not that surprising.

When I have researched how rewards influence behaviours in the past, the top 10% – high achievers – are often excluded from findings because they do not respond to external rewards and instead tend to already be driven and motivated. Indeed there is an argument that reward mechanisms frustrate them rather than motivate them. When I reflect on my own experience of sporting targets and their impact on performance I wonder whether stretch goals should be past what is really required or even achievable, particularly for the high achievers in an organisation.

The cliche of “reach for the stars and you may get to the moon” has some truth. In the workplace this can be a real issue. If rewards in the annual performance appraisal are linked to goals then signing up to an unachievable goal is illogical behaviour – instead goals are “negotiated” with an inevitable drive by the individual to drive down the target. However, greater performance may have been achieved by setting a distant target.

Goals give clarity, set expectations and are generally a good idea. For some organisations, and some people within those organisations a smarter approach to performance appraisal may be required to ensure that goal setting drives the highest performance level.

One Response

  1. Great insight on goal

    Great insight on goal achievement!

    You may want to check out, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals, habits, and todo lists, and supports time tracking too. It's clear, focused, easy to navigate, and most of all, really works!


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John Rice

Sales & Marketing Director

Read more from John Rice

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