Strategy

Should you tell people about your goals, or keep them a secret?

Here's what the science suggests.

After you set your goals, the next question is whether you should share them with your friends, colleagues, and others. Common thinking says that once you make your goals public, you’ll feel motivated to accomplish them because now there are others that will keep you accountable.

But at least one study out of New York University muddied these waters. The research, led by Peter Gollwitzer and published in 2009 by the Association for Psychological Science, challenged the conventional wisdom by showing, in a study of 49 students, that participants whose intentions were known tend to act less on them compared to those with unknown intentions. Gollwitzer and his team believed this was the case because announcing your goals gives people a “premature sense of completeness.”

But studies published more recently challenge the ideas put forth by Gollwitzer and company.

A 2015 study published by the American Psychological Association said that people are more likely to achieve their goals when they closely monitor their progress, and the chances of success are boosted if progress is publicly reported or physically recorded. To reach their conclusion, lead author Benjamin Harkin of the University of Sheffield and his colleagues analyzed 138 studies comprising 19,951 participants surrounding monitoring the progress of personal health goals such as losing weight, quitting smoking, changing diet, or lowering blood pressure.

“Monitoring goal progress is a crucial process that comes into play between setting and attaining a goal, ensuring that the goals are translated into action,” said Harkin. “This review suggests that prompting progress monitoring improves behavioral performance and the likelihood of attaining one’s goals.”

“You get more benefit from sharing your goal than if you don't.”

A 2019 Journal of Applied Psychology study further refines this idea of sharing your goals. In it, lead author Howard Klein and his colleagues said that people should share their goals, but it needs to be with the right person. In the case of the study, the right person was someone participants perceived to have a higher status than themselves; those with more prestige and respect.

In one of the experiments, 171 undergraduate students were asked to move a slider on a computer screen to the number 50 as many times as possible within the allotted time. A lab assistant would go around checking the students’ progress. In some cases, the assistant dressed in a suit and introduced himself as a doctoral-level student, and in others, he wore casual clothing and introduced himself as a student at a local community college who was working part time.

Not only did the group with the well-dressed lab assistant report that they were more committed to achieving the goal they set for themselves, but they actually performed better at the task than the students with the casually dressed assistant, or those who didn’t share their goals.

“Contrary to what you may have heard, in most cases you get more benefit from sharing your goal than if you don’t — as long as you share it with someone whose opinion you value,” Klein said. “You want to be dedicated and unwilling to give up on your goal, which is more likely when you share that goal with someone you look up to.”

So go ahead and share those goals. It may just be the motivation you need to cross the finish line.

Abstract: To better understand how the social context affects self-regulation, we present 4 studies investigating how the perceived relative status of a goal audience influences goal commitment. As a set, these studies use different samples and methods to examine this phenomenon across a variety of contexts, goals, and audiences. Results are highly consistent, supportive of our hypotheses, and demonstrate that it matters to whom goals are made known. Specifically, the perceived relative status of the goal audience is positively related to goal commitment, and downstream performance, via evaluation apprehension. Our findings highlight that it is not enough for goals to be made known to facilitate commitment but that they should be made known to someone perceived as having higher status. Together, these results help to clarify when and how it is beneficial to make goals known to others, provide a greater understanding of social influences on self-regulation, and yield implications for performance management practices aimed at facilitating goal commitment, motivation, and performance.
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