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A Company Full Of Lazy-Brained Cheats!

Bram van der Lecq
Written by Bram van der Lecq April 29, 2020

My ideas about motivation at work were heavily influenced by my parents. Mom was a writer, dad an actor. Like most in their fields, they weren’t in it for the money. They worked to reach their goals. Cheating on targets wasn’t an option. It wouldn’t help them one bit to reach their goals. That was my normal. So, when I joined a big corporation, I was shocked to find it was filled with lazy-brained cheats! It’s time to name and shame!

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In the 90’s, Locke & Latham, after reviewing ~400 goal setting studies, argued that “goal setting might be the best managerial tool available”.

The vast majority of these studies proved that if goals were more specific and difficult, then performance increased. 25 years later, it still made total sense for the corporate I joined to give everyone predefined, specific and difficult targets to stimulate performance. Science said it worked!

My cheating colleagues

Most of my colleagues were young, smart and motivated to make the most of their freshly started careers. It only took a while for most of them to realize that the easiest way to become successful was to reach the targets set for them. Nothing more, nothing less. If you managed to reach your targets, you’d receive a bonus and a good performance review, the latter being absolutely essential for a good career. Reaching targets was the easiest route to reaching personal goals.

Throughout the organization people worked their ass off to reach their targets and be rewarded. Strategies to succeed differed. Some tried to reach theirs’ exactly as explained by their manager. Others found loopholes, and exploited them to the full.

Some of my personal favorites;

  • “If at the end of the year I hadn’t yet reached my target for number of visits yet, I'd clear my agenda between Christmas and New Years Eve and then visit as many companies as I could. Unsurprisingly, most were closed, or their staff at home with their families. I’d just leave my card at reception, drive to the next customer and repeat. Easy-Peasy!”
  • Colleagues who had targets for renewing x contracts per month, would simply let other contracts run a bit longer, if they had already hit their target for the month.
  • Add some additional hours, calls and visits so it looks like you reached your target.

    There were other examples. Outsmarting the system, by using creative and hard-to-trace methods of cheating, wasn’t difficult. The rewards given simply reinforced the behavior... Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?
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The science behind cheating

Reaching goals and targets can be very satisfying and have all kinds of positive psychological and motivational effects. That can be true even if no bonus is attached to the goal.

A study that researched unethical behavior and goals has some very interesting findings; “We found that participants with mere goals, who obtained no monetary or social rewards for reaching them, were more likely to overstate their productivity than were participants attempting to do their best.” This suggests that goal setting without economic incentives increases the value people derive from overstating productivity.

The research also indicated that "deception itself can facilitate self-justification”. They gave an explanation: “In our study, people were far more likely to both misrepresent their performance (in a way that justified taking unearned money) and then take unearned money, than they were to simply take unearned money.”

In short: people were fine cheating on their targets, which resulted in them getting a bonus, but weren’t comfortable just saying that they should get the bonus if they didn’t have the (false) figures to back them up. Isn’t that interesting?

Targets that miss the goal

Luckily, research provides insight into what type of targets are doomed to fail. These can be the catalyst for lowering motivation and even stimulating cheating behavior. Some examples:

  • Unrealistic targets—targets that don’t take into account contextual changes (e.g. just adding x% increase to your sales department each year, even if in a financial crisis), or unrealistic deadlines, or overwhelming task demands, or lack of resources available to succeed, or a large gap between performance and the desired result. (You probably have more examples.)
  • Goals that are too narrowly defined. These can cause underlying objectives not be reached. As was the case with the target for number of visits.
  • Targets that aren’t adopted by the individual: targets that don’t make individuals care enough to solve the problems they need to solve. Your brain is lazy. Or to put it more flatteringly, your brain tries to be energy-efficient. So, if you’re not interested enough, you probably won’t waste much energy on solving a problem.
Your brain is lazy. Or to put it more flatteringly, your brain tries to be energy-efficient.
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Back to lazy-brained, cheating colleagues

Sure, if somebody really cheats, lies and abuses trust, it’s probably best not to work with them. However, you can’t blame humans for being human. Just like my colleagues. They were not being lazy, they were merely optimizing the energy they needed to expend to reach their goals. Mankind has been doing that for centuries. It’s brought us a long way!

Therefore, I’m not convinced it’s only the employee’s fault personal goals don’t align with those of the organization. If organizations would be more proactive in combining employee personal goals with the organization, I’m convinced this would encourage loads of brains to focus on solving real problems in a way that benefited both the organization, employees and most likely the customers as well!

Some practices

Luckily there are loads of examples of companies that we can learn from; here are some practices and tips we encountered!

  • Get employees to create and set their own targets, to stimulate ownership. (Note: This is not about employees choosing the height of a predefined target. It’s about them deciding what they will aim for.)
  • Make sure the targets are closely linked to the (financial) results of a (part)of the company. Many organizations introduce P&L statements for teams so that employees have more influence on the end result.
  • Figure out someone’s individual goals, and try to find targets and rewards that align with them.
  • Make targets fairer by benchmarking growth to market averages. Many progressive organizations such as Haier and Handelsbanken use this method to motivate employees, successfully.
  • Make the balance between targets and rewards fair. If somebody does exponentially better, reward them exponentially. You don’t want people to stop selling products if they reached their target.
  • And lastly, make your targets fair! Don’t call something a “stretch-target” if it’s unrealistic. Be transparent about the details. And check that the balance between effort and reward is equal to that of others in the organization


Curious!

We’re really curious how you feel about the targets & goals you have. What’s the best “cheating” method you’ve seen? What ‘best practices’ have you seen? Or what were the worst?

Written by Bram van der Lecq
Bram van der Lecq
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