Setting Stretch Goals? Build in Ethics

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Employers who are using stretch goals to motivate employees to higher levels of performance need to take note of the ethical risk. If the push for higher performance doesn’t come with an emphasis on ethical behavior, it may be encouraging cheating.

Stretch Goals and Cheating

“Demanding high performance by employees without emphasizing the need to follow a code of ethics encourages cheating in the workplace, according to a study led by professors from the University of Central Florida, University of Georgia, Arizona State University, and University of Nebraska-Kearney.”

Dana Kantrowitz, Study: Employers Should Push Ethics to Offset Stress of High Demands in Workplace, University of Central Florida

Many employers don’t realize they are creating ethical risk when they set “stretch goals” for employees. We’ve all seen it. It’s a message from leadership — “Profits are down and we’ll have financial problems if we don’t get sales up this year” followed by a sales goal that employees know is out of their reach. With stretch goals must come a simultaneous ethics message like “We know this is a tough goal, but we are going to do everything we can to support you, and we expect you to use the highest ethics as you stretch to reach it.”

Goal Setting, Stress, and Ethics

Jeff Buenrostro points out in Forbes that “There is a phantom issue running rampant in company cultures — you can’t see it or hear it. It is highly contagious and attacks the host, taking over and spreading just like a virus.” He’s talking about stress, and the death grip it can have on company culture and bottom line results. When people are stressed, they tend to move into self-preservation mode, in which their thinking process narrows to protect their own interests.

When employees feel that their goals are set too high and think they can’t reach them successfully even with dedication and hard work, that can lead to cheating, which can harm customers, tarnish the organization’s brand and reputation, and erode trust. To minimize negative outcomes, involve employees in setting their goals, and be sure to emphasize the importance of ethics in achieving them. While senior leaders are sure employees will “figure it out” to meet the stretch goals, without an emphasis on ethics what they figure out may be an unethical shortcut.

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership

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