A Company Full Of Lazy-Brained Cheats!

Bram
Written by
- 6 min read

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?

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.

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?

Bram
Written by Bram
3 weeks ago

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Replies (20)

Andy Polaine

Andy Polaine

It's very true. Take a look at how AI training systems don't train what the engineers thought they were training. I wrote a whole essay about this: https://www.polaine.com/2018/12/corporate-culture-and-the-games-ais-play/

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Gin

Gin

Oh yes. Goals and targets are nothing without a behaviour assessment. This is one area where research can be limited as other variable factors are not taken into consideration or controlled for.

As a team/project lead I understood the need for goals and targets to be specific and measureable. However while studying MA Leadership and MSc in Organisational Psychology, the behavioural aspects became far more clear.

There is a gap in leadership to train leaders to look at the behaviours required for success - and behaviours (role-modelled and cascaded) have more impact on actual outcomes than goals and targets.

My most uncomfortable example was working with a senior leadership team to define the skills and behaviours needed in the organisation. There was resistance until one leader spoke up and explained he didn't care about the organisation, only the performance of the individuals who directly influenced his bonus. The other leaders sat in silence, and I was approached afterwards by another leader who tried to convince me the speaker was brave and true. If the senior leaders chase hollow targets, how can the rest of the organisation help but follow suit...

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Bram

Bram

@Gin. that's a great story. Would've been great to see the look on the faces of his colleagues in the room!

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Sam Spencer

Sam Spencer

I agree with much of this, and disagree with some of it.

It's a great takedown of targets, pointing out many of the problems with them. I wrote a similar blog post myself a couple of years ago: http://rethinkingservice.blogspot.com/2018/05/9-reasons-why-targets-make-performance.html

I disagree with the advice about better ways to set targets. Numerical targets will always be arbitrary, and will always have potential to encourage dysfunctional behaviour.

It's important to measure the right things in the right way, and use those measures for learning, collective sense-making, and improvement. As soon as you turn that measure in to a target, things start to go wrong (as stated in 'Goodhart's Law': https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart's_law).

So instead of trying to find better ways to set targets (doing the wrong thing writer), it would be better to abandon them and use the right measures instead.

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Bram

Bram

Hi Sam, Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
I think I agree with most things you're saying, and I'm sorry that the practices I shared didn't come over as clear as I hoped them to come over. Because I'm not saying anything about targets having to be numerical at all :) I'm simply describing the practises we witnessed in different organizations. Some indeed have numerical targets, that were formulated much closer by using better or more specific measurements like you're mentioning. And some didn't have things like that at all. They simply gave there employees a share in the outcome. The latter is perhaps not as specific, but nevertheless it's still a target!

Why would you measure something if your intention is not to use that information for example to change direction/course/target?

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Sam Spencer

Sam Spencer

You're welcome Bram. And thank you for writing the article. It's great to see you raise this important topic, as targets have caused so much dysfunction where I work in the UK public sector.

It sounds like we're probably pretty much in agreement.

I think it's partly to do with the meaning we attach to words. When I read 'targets' I immediately think of an arbitrary number that's used to judge 'performance' of a person, team, or organisation. That's when the bad stuff happens.

However, if you're clear about purpose (and in the public sector that's usually some form of social purpose), that helps the good stuff happen. To know if you are achieving that purpose, so you can improve, you need to use the right measures in the right way.

For me, the most important thing is the intention. Are you measuring in order to judge or blame, or are you doing it so you can learn and improve? If you get the intention right then what else follows will probably be right too.

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Leonie

Leonie

I experienced management trying to push to cheat the system by trying to get existing clients and existing contracts on web-based contracts only to achieve a certain percentage. Even though employees were not feeling comfortable doing this.

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Erik Bouwer

Erik Bouwer

Goed stuk! Perverse prikkels of perverse KPI’s gaan nog een stapje verder. https://www.agconnect.nl/artikel/vijf-perverse-constructies

| | 1 | Flag
Bram

Bram

@Sam, Thanks for elaborating. Good to see we're on the same team ;)

@Leonie Oh wow that's bad! And based on the amount of likes your post got you're not alone in experiencing that!
Curious to see if anyone else can top it!

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Dagmar

Dagmar

Thanks for this inspiring article!
I have seen that individual goals can hinder team work happening. I have worked in an organization with a huge sales team. Revenue was depending on the contract amounts. Sales were organized in regional teams. So the boss of the team ensured he got the hottest, easiest and heaviest leads. Juniors only got the worst, lowest clients. Even if THEY had established an interesting client contact, it got taken away from them. Wow, imagine how frustrating this is for a young person and how this method changes their values to the bad side. And the consequence - the churn rate was tremendous, especially women were disgusted by this work mode...

| | 5 | Flag
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