Image courtesy of Martin Kingsley

Image courtesy of Martin Kingsley

New research highlights insight into the world of motivation and goal setting from the sports world that can be applied to businesses.

Recently, the Wharton School of Business published a document, “Is this Madness? How Losing by Just a Little Can Help a Team — or Company — Win: Knowledge@Wharton.”  You can find it here (you might have to sign up for access). 

With the March Madness tournament starting today, the paper references research spurred on by an author’s role as a  soccer coach.  In this role, the author noticed that his youth sports team was more motivated by a slightly out of reach goal (ie. losing by 1 or 2 goals) than by his motivational halftime speeches or a larger score difference.  This led to further research into basketball teams.  He found that teams who slightly trailed at halftime tried harder (or were more motivated) in the second half of the competition.  In addition, the slightly trailing teams often came back to win.  However, teams that were significantly behind in the first half had a high percentage of losses and thus indicated a lack of motivation in overcoming a significant obstacle. 

This research was combined with a paper titled, “Goals Gone Wild,” co-authored by Wharton marketing professor Maurice Schweitzerrecently.  This paper reinforces the idea that goals that are set too high often force people (or companies) to cheat in an effort to achieve lofty goals.  The authors reference case studies of scandals and Exxon and Sears and you could probably add Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, and a large number of banks and mortgage related institutions to the mix from the current financial crisis. 

What is the lesson from all this.  When setting company or sales team goals, employees of organizations will be more motivated if they perceive the goal to be just slightly out of reach.   More importantly, realistic goal setting will help employees attempt to achieve their goals ethically.  Which brings us to another can of worms, “if ethics are important for business success.”  Let’s leave that question for another posting and ponder how setting realistic goals for 2009 and beyond can help your business grow.