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Study Reveals the Best way for CEOs to Frame their Goals

It turns out that encouraging incremental progress only helps at the beginning, according to new research.

Baby steps or giant strides? It’s a question confronting any CEO who’s tried to encourage staff, and often customers, to reach a grand goal.

Focusing too much on the big picture could be a little too daunting for some staff, while lacking practicality.

On the other hand, setting incremental benchmarks could appear tedious and make people wonder what all the fuss is about.

According to new research, managers may want to consider combining both approaches, but with the caveat that encouraging baby steps probably only makes sense at the start of the project.

“when people first embark on a big task they need to feel assurED that it’s doable. In the later stages, they could BECOME BORED and distracTED and need to be reminded of the purpose of their actions.”

In a paper that will be published in the July edition of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers from Stanford, Fudan and Peking Universities detail the enlightening results of two separate experiments.

In the first phase, 158 undergraduate students were asked to write restaurant reviews. The researchers found that when subjects had completed 30% of the task, those given a series of “sub-goals” had written more words.

But later on things flipped: at the 70% completion point, subjects only given a big-picture goal had written more words than those with sub-goals.

The second experiment dug even deeper by splitting subjects writing information on books for a local bookstore into three different categories. Some were given an overall goal of 80 points, others were only given eight 10-point sub-goals and a third group got a combination: sub-goals in the first four days and the 80-point big goal in the remaining four days.

The results were telling. The big picture group uploaded information on 1,268 books, while the sub-goal uploaded information on 1,392 books. The hybrid group uploaded information on 1,906 books.

The reasoning behind the results, the authors suggest, is that when people first embark on a big task they need to feel some assurance that it’s actually doable. But in the later stages they could fall victim to boredom and distraction and need to be reminded of the purpose of their actions.

Take a weight-loss scheme as an example. Try telling an obese person that it’s conceivable they can be thin, when making the effort to get on a treadmill can be a painful and demoralizing experience. Setting a more moderate goal, of say losing two pounds a week, can seem far more realistic. Focusing on the ultimate goal later on can inspire the motivation to keep on slogging it out.

The survey results, the researchers suggest, also could be applied to companies offering long-term financial advice, or airlines trying to grow their customer loyalty programs.


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