This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
I often hear the argument made that the effort involved in effective goal setting is really unnecessary so long as people just “do their best.”
The problem with “do your best” is that “your best” is an arbitrary term. There is no real way to measure it or even know when you’ve arrived. Each person has their own view of what “best” means. Thus, I’ve often heard managers telling employees, “You call this your best work? This is terrible!” Of course, this “feedback” is of absolutely no value as it fails to provide the person with any information that she can use to change or improve her work. Conversely, I’ve also seen many an engineer respond to a deadline by saying to their increasingly frustrated managers, “But it’s not done yet. It could be better!”
For an organization, “do your best” lacks any coherent focus or vision. It produces muddied priorities instead of a common objective. Common goals help bring teams together and provide a means to adjust course when something doesn’t work as expected; “do your best” is more likely to produce argument and blame when the team runs into an unexpected problem. In a “do your best” environment, clearly failure is the result of someone not “doing their best!” Everyone should just “try harder!” This is a sure recipe for overwork, exhaustion, burnout, and low productivity. Of course, since everyone is busy running around in circles frantically trying to “try harder” and “do their best,” it looks like a lot is getting done: remember that motion does not equal progress. Accomplishing goals equals progress.
The whole point of goals is that they give us a way to decompose a task into logical pieces, organize those pieces, and attack them in a systematic fashion. Goals provide us feedback so that we know how far we’ve come, how much is left to do, and when we’ve arrived at our destination. “Do your best” does none of these things. Overall, people, and businesses, with clear goals out-perform those who are simply attempting to do their best roughly 99.9% of the time. But, since autonomy is an important motivating factor, you should feel free to bet against those odds if you really want to.