The Urban Legend of the Great Goal Study

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Researchers surveyed the graduating seniors from the class of 1953 at Yale University. They asked if the class members had written goals for their future. Three percent did. The rest did not.

Twenty years later, researchers went back to the surviving members of the class. They discovered that those with written life goals had accumulated more wealth than all their classmates put together.

The only problem with this powerful finding is that there was no such study. Researchers at Yale and members of the class of 1953 all swear they never conducted or participated in a study like that.

There are other versions of this urban legend where the school is different (usually Harvard). Sometimes the year is different. Same for the percentage of class members with written goals.

Yes, it’s true that motivational speakers have trumpeted the lesson of the goal setting study for decades. In fact when one of them was confronted with the truth, he said, “If it’s not true it should be.”

But just because the most popular “evidence” for the power of goal setting is bogus, doesn’t mean that goal setting is a waste of your time. And there’s evidence to support that.

Edwin Locke of the University of Maryland and Gary Latham of the University of Toronto have made a career of studying goal setting. Their findings may not be as quotably dramatic as the “Yale Study” They may not be as well known as Tony Robbins. But they are credible.

And they’ll tell you that goal setting can improve performance. They’ve identified four ways which they outlined in a paper from 2002 in American Psychologist.

“Goals serve a directive function.” They help you concentrate your time and energy.

“Goals have an energizing function.” You’re more likely to work hard to achieve a specific goal than if you just decide to “do better” or “lose weight” or “increase sales.”

“Goals affect persistence.” You work harder to overcome obstacles because your goal is important to you.

“Goals affect action indirectly.” You’ll develop new skills and abilities as you pursue your goal. 

Bosses Bottom Line

Even though the most-quoted “study” on goal setting has been debunked, setting goals will still help you improve performance for you and your team.

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