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How to Set Goals That Lessen the Temptation to Cheat

Managers have long used ambitious goals as motivational tools, but that can backfire, with employees sometimes crossing ethical lines to make their numbers. Recall Wells Fargo, where employees created millions of unapproved accounts in an effort to satisfy lofty sales targets. Yet numerous studies have shown that when goals are made less challenging or are dispensed with altogether, performance declines—creating a dilemma for managers seeking to drive results without inadvertently encouraging unethical behavior.

A new study suggests a way around the problem, relating to the type of goal that is set. In one experiment, 231 university students were given three rounds of anagrams to solve. In the final round they did not have to show their solutions but merely had to check a box next to each anagram they had unscrambled. One group of students was told that the task was intended to evaluate their performance—a so-called outcome goal. Another group was told that the task was meant to develop their skills—a learning goal. Sixty-one percent of the students with an outcome goal inflated their performance, versus 44% of those with a learning goal. This happened, the researchers say, because outcome goals stimulate what’s known as a prevention focus: People become so intent on preventing a negative outcome that they will go to great lengths to avoid falling short.

Experiments involving numerical problem solving yielded similar results, and the effect was heightened when the goals were especially difficult. Importantly, framing a task as a learning exercise had no negative effect on how well participants did. “Managers can motivate performance and avoid unethical behavior if they implement challenging learning goals rather than assigning ends-focused outcome goals,” the researchers write.

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It Pays to Reveal Production Costs

Companies rarely disclose the cost of producing a good—but a new study suggests that often they should. In a field experiment with the dining service of a large U.S. university, customers saw one of two signs about the chicken soup for sale: a list of ingredients, or a list of ingredients showing the cost of each one plus the cost of labor. Over the course of five weeks and more than 50 hours of lunchtime sales, customers who saw the costs were 21% likelier than others to buy a bowl of soup. Five subsequent experiments involving a variety of products (wallets, travel packages, T-shirts) replicated the result and provided insight into the reason for it. “Although firms typically treat their costs as tightly guarded secrets, the present research points to a potential upside of revealing them,” the researchers write. “Just as when people reveal sensitive information, when firms do so, it can engender trust and deepen the relationship among companies and consumers.”

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“Fresh Starts” Can Backfire

Performance resets are common: For example, metrics such as sales tallies and billable hours are often set back to zero at the start of a calendar cycle. This is thought to inspire people to set new goals and strive for improvement. But what about people who were already doing well? A new study finds that for them, resets are demotivating and cause performance to decline.

The researcher analyzed archival data from Major League Baseball. When a player is traded to a team in a different league, his season-to-date statistics are reset. Examining traded players’ at bats from 1975 to 2014, the researcher found that trades across leagues had a bigger effect on batting averages than trades within a league—and whether the effect was positive depended on pre-trade performance. When that was one standard deviation below the league average, an across-league trade was followed by a nine-point increase in batting average; when it was one standard deviation above the league average, an across-league trade was followed by a 13-point decline. Subsequent experiments involving word searches and anagrams found a similar pattern: Resets helped low performers but hurt high ones. This happens, the researcher says, because resets affect self-efficacy, or confidence about future performance. When people regard their past performance as weak, a reset boosts self-efficacy and increases the motivation to continue, but the opposite occurs when people regard their past performance as strong. These findings can help companies leverage resets as a motivational tool, the researcher suggests. “Given a chance to put past performance failures behind them, employees may…recover more easily,” she writes. “However, managers should be aware that performance resets affect employees differently…. [They] may consider communicating positive expectations to and instilling confidence in top performers when a reset occurs.”

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Does the Squeakiest Wheel Get the Most Grease?

A new study tests the common belief that the angrier people appear after a service failure, the more compensation they’ll get—and shows that often the reverse is true. The effect of intense anger on service reps, the researchers found, varies according to a cultural trait known as power distance, or PD: a person’s level of acceptance of power differences and hierarchy. Across four experiments involving simulated service interactions, participants with high PD—those who accepted power differences as natural or inevitable—gave more compensation to mildly angry customers than to intensely angry ones, while participants with low PD did just the opposite. Why? The high-PD subjects saw displays of intense anger as inappropriate and punished them, while the low-PD subjects saw the displays as threatening and rewarded them. But when the perception of threat was mitigated (participants were told that customers couldn’t harm them), low-PD people, too, gave more compensation to mildly angry customers.

PD varies on both individual and societal levels, the researchers say; for example, Singapore is a high-PD culture, while Israel is a low one. Given the cultural diversity of service employees and the increasing globalization of such work, they advise, firms can benefit from assessing reps’ PD and tailoring emotional management training accordingly; the goal is to avoid having reps over- or undercompensate customers simply because of how angry they appear.

“For low-PD service employees, managers might minimize perceptions of threat by fostering a climate of support and helping employees feel protected by the organization,” the researchers write. “In contrast, training for employees in cultures with high PD might emphasize…the need to think carefully about how best to serve customers without automatically penalizing an emotional tone considered to be inappropriate.”

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If You Think You’re Multitasking, You’ll Do Better

We may pride ourselves on our ability to multitask, but cognitive scientists know that strictly speaking, there’s no such thing: Most activities requiring active attention can’t be done simultaneously, and we’re really just rapidly switching between them, generally with poor results. New research shows there’s reason not to shatter our illusions: Across 32 studies, people who perceived themselves as doing two things at once (for example, listening to a lecture and taking notes) outperformed people primed to see the same activity as consisting of a single task (taking lecture notes). Those who identified as multitaskers took more and higher-quality notes in the scenario above; they also proved better at word-search puzzles, video transcriptions, and math problems.

This happened, the researchers say, because of heightened engagement: Multitasking is viewed as challenging, so people want to demonstrate their proficiency at it. “[Although] working on more than one task is detrimental to performance…separating an activity into its components and merely creating the perception of multitasking could improve people’s performance,” the researchers write. “Furthermore, if people are already engaged in multiple tasks, making them aware that they are multitasking should increase engagement and help them perform better.”

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Beware Excessively Chipper CEOs

The economist John Maynard Keynes wrote of the “animal spirits” that can affect the stock market and the economy, and economists routinely monitor consumer and investor sentiment for clues about where the business cycle and markets are heading. A new study highlights another measure of mood: manager sentiment.

Drawing on transcripts of quarterly conference calls with investors and management discussions in 10-K and 10-Q filings—more than 375,000 documents in all—researchers used textual analysis tools to count the positive and negative words in all statements for each month from January 2003 to December 2014. They calculated the difference between the two types of words and divided by the total number of words to arrive at a “monthly financial statement tone.” Next they examined aggregate stock returns for the subsequent month, three months, six months, nine months, and 12 months. The more positive corporate managers were in their communications, the worse the market performed. Comparing their indicator with others, such as the consumer sentiment measures produced by the University of Michigan and the Conference Board, the researchers found that manager sentiment was a better predictor of stock price movements.

The researchers believe that high degrees of positivity signal that managers are overconfident and apt to overinvest, causing profits to decline. “Corporate managers as a whole tend to be overly optimistic when the economy and the market peak, and the manager sentiment index is a contrarian return indicator,” they write.

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