Inspirational thoughts and ideas


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It’s the beginning of the year. We survived the predicted 2012 apocalypse and 2013 has been ushered in with much excitement. Here in the Southern hemisphere and particularly in South Africa, many of us are returning to work after many sun filled weeks of summer vacation. Schools are back, businesses are awakening from many weeks of slumber and a sense of normality is returning to our lives. We have eaten too much. We drank too much. We spent more money than we should have. We have reflected on the ups and downs of the past year and now merely because the calendar has changed from the 31st December to the 1st of January we are of the opinion that our lives should now change radically. Most of us, if we have not done so already are starting to look at our resolutions or even real goals for the new year.

Judging by the numerous posts on Facebook relating to the subject, many people out there are super gung ho and are definitely going big this year. All of the gyms are full and the roads have many more runners and cyclists.

If we are anything like the majority out there, most of our resolutions will centre around the following popular recurring themes: look familiar?

  • Exercise more/ lose weight/ get fit
  • Spend more time with family and loved ones
  • Get out of debt/ start saving/ take control of our finances
  • Learn a new skill
  • Quit smoking
  • Get organised
  • Help others

What is the likelihood that we will succeed?. Many studies have been conducted over the years relating to our chances of actually sticking to our resolutions and the stats don’t look good. Around 35% of us will break our resolutions by the end of January and a mere 23% of us will actually go on to keep these resolutions, with the rest bombing out in the next few months.

Having said that though, we are far more likely to keep commitments made at the beginning of the year than if we did not resolve to make any specific commitments. The beginning of a year can be a good time to refocus and to reenergise for the year ahead. Batteries are charged and there is a feeling of renewal and fresh starts. What can be more valuable than having a goal? From our early years, our parents, teachers and coaches have counselled us to set goals and to work flat out to achieve them. There is lots of evidence to suggest that goal setting tunes out all our periphery distractions. It narrows our focus and channels our energies in a specific direction. Goals can powerfully drive our behaviour and boost our performance.

There is, however another side to goal setting that can absolutely have negative consequences and recently a group of academics from the Harvard business school, Northwestern university’s Kellogg school of management, the university of Arizona’s Eller college of management and the university of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school have argued in a Harvard business report titled “Goals gone wild” that the benefits of goal setting have been overstated and that in some cases can be detrimental. In their own words – “goal setting has been treated like an over-the-counter medication when it should really be treated with more care, as a prescription-strength mediation.”Their argument is that goals should be prescribed selectively, presented with a warning label and closely monitored. Perhaps there are some considerations to be made before we embark on our annual goal setting process. Let’s take a look at some of the “warning labels”

Research has shown that goals can focus our attention, however when they are too specific they narrow our focus so closely that we overlook other important aspects of a goal. Many of us will have seen the video developed by Simons and Chabris in their well known study of inattentional blindness. The researchers show participants a video of two groups of players passing basketballs. One group is wearing white shirts and the other group is wearing dark shirts. When individuals are tasked with counting the number of passes between players wearing the white shirts, they unconsciously block out the player wearing dark shirts. As a result of this intense focus most participants fail to notice when a man wearing a gorilla suit casually walks onto the court and starts pounding his chest and then walks off screen. Intense concentration of their counting task blocks out important elements of the visual world around us.

A classic example of this is the story of the Ford Pinto. In the late 1960’s, The Ford motor company were in the unusual situation of having gradually lost market share to foreign manufacturers who were offering the market smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. To counter this threat, then CEO, Lee Iacocca, announced the very specific and challenging goal of producing a vehicle that would be available for purchase in 1970, would weigh less than 2000 pounds and would cost less than $2000-00. They achieved the goal stated, but at what cost? In order to meet the tight deadline and the specific requirements, many levels of management signed off on safety performance issues that had not been tested properly. One of the many safety checks that were under checked revolved around the serious design flaw of the petrol tank which was situated behind the rear axle in about nine inches of crushed space and could result in the tank igniting upon impact. 53 deaths, many injuries and a series of lawsuits later, executives remained committed to the goal. It was calculated that the costs associated with the lawsuits would be less than the costs associated with changing the design. The very specific targets of fuel efficiency, speed to market and cost were deemed to be more important than the non specified, but far more important issues of safety, brand reputation and ethical behaviour.

It’s the beginning of the year and we are pumped up and rearing to go. The natural tendency is to focus on all 13 goals or resolutions that you have. Research shows that when we have multiple goals we only tend to focus on one goal and we usually focus on the easy goals in favour of perhaps the more important goals. A great way to focus on goals is to plan weekly. Focus on one or two areas of your life (e.g.: financial or family or physical), or highlight one or two of your roles that you want to focus on for the week (e.g.: motivational speaker, or author, or father) and then set one or two goals for that week. Ask yourself: What do I want to accomplish this week in relation to this role or area of life? What is the one important thing that I can do that will radically impact my week? The more we keep commitments to ourselves and follow through on important things the easier it is to start developing new habits. Breaking down goals into weekly focus areas is a lot easier than focusing on the end result of many months worth of work – baby steps. The important thing here is that we are gradually moving towards becoming the kinds of human beings we aspire to be. Keep the end in mind because that is the motivator, but focus on process, one step at a time.

The pressure for results is often intense and many individuals are mandated to turn around ailing departments or organisations in exceptionally short periods of time. This very often results in managers engaging in myopic, short term quick fixes that blur the future and are often detrimental to the long term well being of their organisations or departments. The research shows that often those organisations that report quarterly earnings as opposed to those who reported less frequently, tended to beat market expectations, but were also more than likely to spend less on research and development. It can also be argued that goals can be seen as a ceiling rather than a floor for added performance. We all know the sales people who cruise for the rest of the month when targets have been reached.

I have not been to New York city, but I believe that it is notoriously difficult to get a cab on rainy days. It has always been thought that the reason is the increased demand for cabs on wet days. This is true, but it’s only half the story. A 1997 study of New York cab drivers reveals the following behaviour from the cabbies. As the day progresses on wet days more cabs keep disappearing from Manhattan streets, which is in stark contrast to sunny days where there are many more cabs on the roads. Why? The answer can be found in the goals set by the cab drivers – To earn double the amount it costs them to rent out their cabs for a 12 hour shift. On rainy days the demand is higher, the drivers make their targets quicker and then go home earlier.

It obviously would make sense for them to work longer on the days that they can earn more money and less on the days where they would traditionally earn less. The problem is in the short term mentality. If they extended their time frame to a month instead of a day, they could keep track of the trends and patterns. They could then earn more, spend less time at work and provide a better service to rain drenched New Yorkers.

The final point I want to make in relation to the goal setting process is that goals imposed on others and tied to a reward system are not often the best way to achieve the results we want. A lot of research has been done over the years about the harmful effects of using the carrot and stick method to motivate individuals. It simply does not work. We need to tap into our internal motives for why we do what we do. If we can’t answer the why question it’s going to be really difficult to sustain the behaviours that are required to keep moving us forward.

I do a fair amount of work in the motor industry and this particular industry has for decades tried to motivate sales executives and service advisors by tying rewards to targets which are always imposed by managers and dealer principals who are in turn under pressure from the group or the manufacturer to produce increasingly challenging results. It is rarely sustainable over a period of time. Staff turnover in sales executives in the motor industry is notoriously high. If you don’t own your goals and haven’t answered the why, the rest becomes irrelevant.

Another consequence of imposing goals that are overly challenging is that it often can result in increased risk taking and unethical behaviour in an attempt to achieve targets at all costs. There are many instances where technicians overcharge for work done or complete unnecessary work or overlook certain safety critical checks in order to get the next job in. A few months of not achieving overly challenging targets imposed by others is that we eventually develop what Martin Seligman refers to as “learned helplessness”. Despondency sets in and it becomes very difficult to envision a way out. This results in desperation tactics and a short term mentality with a do whatever it takes to seal the deal mentality. We may get the sale now, but we will always sacrifice the long term relationship with the client.

As we re-evaluate the achievements of last year perhaps we should ponder a little harder and be careful of the goals we set for ourselves or impose on others. Not all goals are equal. All the best for a spectacular 2012!

About the Author

Eddie Botes is a motivational speaker and trainer based in cape Town, South Africa. He is the founder of Leadershift, an organisation dedicated to inspiring and developing greatness in leaders, by providing world class training programs, entertaining and research packed presentations and state of the art profiling and assessment solutions.

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