Goal Research Bibliography

The references below detail how the HabitStack system applies 100 years of scientific research on goals and human motivation in the workplace.

Research on the effectiveness of goals

HabitStack places a huge emphasis on goals—setting them, breaking them down, and then developing the habits to execute on them. There’s good reason for putting goals front and center: Research over the past 100 years has consistently found that goal execution systems can dramatically improve performance in the workplace.

Goals improve performance in the workplace

Studies for decades have consistently found that goals improve performance on a range of work-related tasks, across a range of fields.

Goal Setting Theory, 1990 (2013) by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. The authors review over 50 years of research that consistently finds that goal-setting substantially impacts performance. They conclude that goals activate, direct that effort at relevant tasks, foster persistence, and prompt us to draw on knowledge and skills to be successful.

A Review of the Influence of Group Goals on Group Performance (1994) by Anne M. O'leary-kelly, Joseph J. Martocchio and Dwight D. Frink. The authors conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to determine the effect of group goals on team performance. They found that consistently, across studies, groups that set specific, challenging goals perform significantly better than groups that are simply told to do their best to complete the task.

The improvements are meaningful

Not only do goals improve performance in the workplace, but those improvements in performance have a meaningful economic impact. Goal-setting can lead to significantly greater productivity and economic output.

The Economic value of goal setting to employers (2013) by Frank Schmidt. In this study, Schmidt uses a utility analysis procedure to estimate the economic value of goal setting to employers. He estimates that goal setting improves performance by a standard deviation of 0.46. Translating that into a dollar value, he calculates the value of increased output is 18.4% of an employee’s salary. So, an employee that earns $100,000 a year will create $18,400 more in value for their employee when they adopt a goal execution system.

We can also translate that to time: they essentially produce 20% more in the same time; What they used to do in 5 days, they can do in 4. It’s a massive effect.

Research on making goals difficult and specific

We encourage HabitStack users to set goals that are specific and challenging, but also doable. Here’s why.

Goals are best when they’re specific and challenging

Goal setting theorists agree that specific, challenging goals improve task performance the most.

A Meta-Analysis of the Goal Setting-Performance Literature (2017) by Thomas R. Chidester and W. Charles Grigsby. In this meta-analysis of 20 studies, the authors find, “Unequivocally, setting either difficult or specific goals reliably results in increased productivity.”

A meta-analytic study of the effects of goal setting on task performance: 1966–1984 (1987) by Anthony J. Mento, Robert P. Steel, and Ronald J. Karren. Another meta-analysis finds that specific and difficult goals result in better performance than vague goals, easy goals, or “do your best” goals.

Goal setting: A meta-analytic examination of the empirical evidence (1986) by M. E. Tubbs. In this meta-analysis of primary studies, the author finds evidence that both specific and difficult goals lead to better performance than non-specific or easy goals.

The effect of goal setting on group performance: A meta-analysis (2011) by Ad Kleingeld, Heleen van Mierlo, and Lidia Arends. This meta-analysis confirms that specific, difficult goals result in better performance for teams than nonspecific goals.

Goals don’t work as well when they’re too hard

While harder goals improve performance to a point, they stop working when they get too hard.

Stretch Goals: Risks, Possibilities, and Best Practices (2013) by Steve Kerr and Douglas LePelley. The authors review the research on stretch goals—goals that seem impossible. They note that “overly difficult goals can cause people to view them as ridiculous and not take them seriously, or alternatively, to work harder and harder until they eventually conclude that the goals cannot be attained, whereupon they become demoralized and disengage.”

Relation of goal level to performance with a short work period and multiple goal levels (1982) by Edwin A. Locke. The author conducted a goal-setting experiment with 247 undergraduate students where they completed a task with multiple levels of goal difficulty. The research found that the harder the level of the goal, the better the students performed. That relationship persisted up until the highest level of difficulty when difficulty became unrelated to performance.

The Paradox of Stretch Goals: Organizations in Pursuit of the Seemingly Impossible (2011) by Sim B. Sitkin et al. The researchers look at the use of stretch goals—goals that seem impossible—in organizations. In certain circumstances—when there was previous high performance and many resources (like time), stretch goals can facilitate better performance. But they can also hinder performance when there isn’t a context of high performance and highly available resources. Moreover, organizations tend to use stretch goals more often in circumstances when they’ll hinder performance vs. when they will facilitate it.

Read more:What Science Says About How Goal Setting Impacts Company Success

Research on communicating goals with a team

HabitStack is often used by teams. When used as a team, we encourage individuals to share goals with their team in regular meetings—ideally weekly. This is to ensure everyone’s aligned and pulling in the same direction. But an added benefit is that the research suggests that individuals are more successful when they share their goals publicly and provide feedback to each other.

Publicly sharing goals leads to better performance

Sharing goals with others leads to better performance.

The effect of private and public goal setting on classroom on-task behavior of emotionally disturbed children (1984) *by Robert D. Lyman. *The study examined the effects of private and public goal-setting on classroom on-task behavior of special needs children. It found that on-task behavior increased significantly when goals were shared publicly compared to when they were made privately.

Self-reinforcing effects: An artifact of social standard setting? (1985) by Steven C. Hayes et al. The authors investigated the effect of public vs. private goal setting. They found that goal-setting that was known to others was significantly more impactful in helping students study more effectively compared to when the goal-setting was done privately.

Setting group goals leads to better performance

Setting goals as a group leads to better performance than setting goals individually.

Effects of goals and feedback on performance in groups (1987) by Tamao Matsui, Takashi Kakuyama, and Mary Lou Uy Onglatco. The authors conducted an experiment in which undergraduate students made individual goals or goals in pairs. They found that group goal-setting led to higher performance than did individual goal-setting.

The effect of goal setting on group performance: A meta-analysis (2011) by Ad Kleingeld, Heleen van Mierlo, and Lidia Arends. This meta-analysis found that when goals were “group-centric,” i.e. aimed at maximizing individual contribution to the group’s performance, they were especially effective in improving team performance. When goals were “egocentric”—aimed only at maximizing individual performance—they actually had a negative effect on group performance. The findings suggest that individuals who work in teams should make their goals with teammates and focus on maximizing their individual contribution to the group’s performance.

Regular feedback leads to better performance

Regular meetings give team members an opportunity to provide feedback to each other. Feedback on goals has consistently been found to improve performance.

A motivational investigation of group effectiveness using social-cognitive theory (1996) by Gregory E. Prussia and Angelo J Kinicki. The authors found that providing feedback to a team will have a positive relationship with their efficacy.

Feedback, Goal Setting, and Task Performance Revisited (2013) by Susan J. Ashford and Katleen E. M. De Stobbeleir. The authors review the research on the role of feedback in goal setting and performance. They find that feedback plays two roles in goal setting: It encourages individuals to actually set goals, and it provides information about how well they are doing with respect to the goals, which helps them re-calibrate for success.

Research on limiting group size

When HabitStack is used for teams, we recommend that those teams are limited to 4 or 5 people. For larger teams, we recommend separating into different groups. Keeping small groups ensures everyone can participate and still keep meetings from being too long. However, there is also some research to find that as team sizes increase, individuals are more likely to engage in “social loafing” and put in less effort. Keeping HabitStack groups helps maximize each person’s effort.

Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration (1993) by Steven K. Karau and Kipling D. Williams. In this meta-analysis, authors examine factors that contribute to social loafing—the tendency for individuals to expend less effort when working collectively than when working individually. They found that large team size contributes to more social loafing, whereas smaller team size tends to decrease it.

Research on assigning goals to your team

HabitStack users are often surprised that we encourage leaders to assign goals to their teams. Most people believe that goals must be self-set or set participatively to be effective. It’s not the case: Assigned goals can be just as effective as self-set or participative goals.

Goal setting: A meta-analytic examination of the empirical evidence (1986) by M. E. Tubbs. In this meta-analysis, the author finds that there is no effect of participation on performance: Self-set and participative set goals were equally effective in boosting performance.

Read more:Surprising Goal Fact: Your Teams Don’t Need To Set Their Own Goals—You Can Assign Them

Research on chunking long-term goals into weekly goals

Overall, goals improve performance, but they work better when goals are short-term. That’s why we make yearly goals and then chunk them down into quarterly goals, monthly goals, and even weekly goals.

The effects of proximal and distal goals on performance on a moderately complex task (1999) by Gary P. Latham and Gerard H. Seijts. The researchers conducted an experiment where they assigned participants to complete a complex business task in one of three conditions: they were given a long-term goal, they were given a long-term goal with short-term subgoals, or they were told to do their best. The researchers found that the long-term goal condition without subgoals performed worst and the long-term goal condition with sub-goals performed best.

Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment (2002) by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch. The researchers conducted several studies, including one that compared performance between participants who were given an end deadline with evenly spaced deadlines or just the end deadline. It found that evenly spaced deadlines led to better performance than just the end deadline. The authors conclude that, “Taken together, the results show that when increasing the constraints on deadlines, performance improved, and time spent on the task increased.”

The role of proximal intentions in self-regulation of refractory behavior (1977) by Albert Bandura and Karen M. Simon. The researchers looked at the effect of proximal vs. distal goals on dieting. They found that proximal goals led to better results on dieting metrics than distal goals. They suggest that, “Immediate goals mobilize effort and direct what one must do in the here and now. Distal goals, on the other hand, are too far removed in time to serve as effective incentives and guides for present action.”

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