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Thursday, December 4, 2014 - Paul Blackhurst, Client Director, Mannaz

What are your goals for 2015? You really should have some. There is so much research confirming the benefits of setting goals. Or, is there?

There is an oft-quoted study from Yale University where in 1953, a team of researchers interviewed Yale’s graduating seniors, asking them whether they had written down the specific goals that they wanted to achieve in life. Twenty years later the researchers tracked down the same cohort and found that the three per cent of people who had specific goals all those years earlier had accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97 per cent of their classmates combined. Indeed, the three per cent were more successful in most areas of their lives and much happier than the 97 per cent. Compelling evidence indeed.

However, the fascinating thing is that apparently no ‘goals study’ of the class of 1953 actually occurred. When the story was investigated, the secretary of the Yale class of 1953 did not know of the study, nor did any of the fellow class members that were questioned. In addition, a number of Yale administrators were consulted and the records of various offices were examined in an effort to document the reported study. There was no relevant record, nor did anyone recall the purported study of the class of 1953, or any other class. So, how did a non-existent study gain such currency?

It seems that there were two early ‘reporters’ of these studies. Mark McCormack reported the study in his best-selling What They Don’t Teach You in the Harvard Business School and Brian Tracy in his equally best-selling Goals! book. Other self-development gurus who have helped to perpetuate the myth include Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins. So, one conclusion is that if enough people of credibility and authority tell us something, then we tend to believe it.

This is a gift to conspiracy theorists as it suggests that we cannot always trust authority. For those of us in positions of authority, though, it may suggest something else. If our intention is to inspire rather than to trick people, then maybe some truthstretching is allowable.

A study that really happened was performed by Robert Rosenthal and Leonore Jacobson. It showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from children, then the children’s performance was enhanced. All students in a single California elementary school were given a disguised IQ test at the beginning of the study. Teachers were aware of the names of the students who could be expected to do better than their classmates (about 20 per cent chosen at random). At the end of the study, the same IQ-test was used. First and second graders showed statistically significant gains favouring the experimental group of high potentials. This led to the conclusion that teacher expectations, particularly for the youngest children, can influence student achievement.

Imagine, as a leader, how you can use this kind of ‘benign untruth’ to develop your people and to develop yourself. If you say it with conviction, and often enough, and you believe the source, then it becomes true. Setting goals is one way of telling yourself about your future and in that way helping it to become true. So, tell yourself some compelling stories about yourself in 2015.

And, as Mark Twain said, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”