Setting goals tends to be at least an annual event in our professional lives. Generally, this involves sitting down with our supervisors to identify the things we want to achieve in the coming year and make an action plan for success. An important question that is either implicitly or explicitly embedded in this exercise is the degree to which we should stretch ourselves.

An intriguing study conducted by Leadership IQ sheds some light on that question. They surveyed over 4000 employees about how their supervisor managed the goals they were assigned. Specifically, they were asked to respond to the following questions using a 7-point scale (from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree:)

  • My boss pushes me harder than I would push myself
  • I will have to exert extra effort to achieve my assigned goals for this year
  • I will have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year

Interestingly, people who scored higher on the above three questions were also significantly more likely to:

  • Consider themselves to be high performers
  • Feel that the work that they do makes a difference
  • Recommend the company to other people as a great place to work

Perhaps the most revealing and powerful result was that individuals who scored higher on the first three questions were also significantly more likely to recommend the person they work for as a great boss. Essentially, supervisors who expected more from their employees and pushed them were seen as more desirable.

Although this finding may be surprising to some, several reasons were postulated to explain this relationship. First and foremost, a powerful by-product of setting stretch goals is that it instills confidence in employees. Why would a supervisor agree to such a goal if he or she did not feel that the employee had the skill or aptitude to achieve it? This type of acknowledgement inspires a higher level of commitment and performance as a result.

Another benefit of stretch goals is that it can convey the importance of the work. Rather than being mundane or routine, it requires employees to be at their best and to explore new territories and opportunities. This can enhance the level of meaning and purpose employees extract from their work, reinforcing the message that their work matters.

Translating Research to Practice

The above research provides some intriguing lessons for both individuals and leaders alike.

For individuals

This research clearly highlights the importance of setting stretch goals for ourselves. If and when you set personal goals, make sure you are appropriately stretching yourself. Committing to move beyond our comfort zone can be incredibly rewarding and maximize our personal and professional growth and development.

If you really want to stretch yourself, ask someone you know and trust to be your ‘goal coach.’ Just like a personal trainer, this person can push you to achieve your goals and make sure you stay on track. They can also challenge you to continue to strive for excellence.

For leaders

Although some leaders may be concerned about overburdening their employees, the above research suggests this may limit them from reaching their potential. While it is not wise to continue adding responsibilities and pressure until the person cannot take it anymore, an effective strategy based on the above is to have an open conversation about how you, as their leader, can appropriately stretch them during the upcoming year or quarter.

Before the goal-setting meeting, ask your employees to think about how they can stretch themselves in these areas. What would be effective stretching areas for them to explore?

You can also ask your team how you can best support them in this process, both individually and collectively. Stimulate open group discussions around the importance of stretching ourselves. Challenge your team to think about how they can support each other moving forward.

Each of the above strategies can yield tremendous dividends by tapping into our desire to grow and develop.

Conclusion

Setting goals is a universal activity, which continues to take prominence within organizations. It appears that “getting out of our comfort zone” is crucial to maximizing the benefits from this process. Taking the time to reflect, as individuals or as people leaders, on how we can incorporate this perspective into our professional lives can maximize our performance and allow us to fully explore and realize our potential.

About the Author

Craig Dowden, Ph.D.

Craig Dowden, Ph.D., holds a degree in psychology with a specialization in business.

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