Young woman climbing up on wall in gym, rear view

“Sell 10% more product. Meet quarterly objectives. Reduce attrition by 15%.” Checklist goals may make sense but they’re not necessarily motivating. While they may sometimes be difficult, they’re straightforward and even familiar.

Stretch goals, on the other hand, engage our brains and bodies differently. As panelists discussed  in Grow People Faster, the closing keynote session of Day 1 at the 15th Annual NeuroLeadership Summit, stretch goals are performance points beyond what is currently being achieved. They are aims that people don’t have a clear idea of how to reach. They’re also key to growing people in organizations.

But there are special challenges to stretch goals, noted Dr. Emily Balcetis of NYU. Because they surpass current performance levels and are chronologically distant, stretch goals represent information that our brain processes in a different way. Our thinking about stretch goals can tend to remain abstract and diffuse, instead of clear and action-oriented.

The neuroscience of human behavior and learning can be harnessed to encourage employees to reach stretch assignments; teams, to reach stretch projects; and an enterprise, to create stretch products or services.

  • A growth mindset is essential.
    A growth mindset is the belief that people can grow and develop—that talent and skill are not predisposed by genetics, culture or other factor. Allowing employees the freedom to fail is crucial for companies that value innovation. One of Google’s development labs actively rewards its engineers for failure instead of shaming them.
  • Vision boards don’t work.
    Simply thinking about your goals makes you more “action-lethargic” than does the combination of thinking about goals and mentally planning the actions to achieve them. Systolic blood pressure is a physiological indicator of one’s readiness to action. In one study cited by Dr. Balcetis, daydreaming about goals lowered systolic BP levels, while thinking about goals and actions raised them.
  • Create the right habits.
    Implementation intentions (“If/then” statements) can create sustainable behavior change. When a Dutch company implemented a program to increase recycling, its employees were throwing away 1,000 cups per week. After employees were repeat-exposed to the statement “If I use a plastic cup, then I’ll place it in the recycling bin,” there was over 80% less waste—and this persisted after months after the behavior-change training.
  • See the goal closer.
    Dr. Balcetis’s lab had participants in one study walk, with ankle weights, to a finish line. When study subjects were instructed to mentally visualize the end point as 30% closer, they reported the task felt 17% easier—even though they were actually expending 23% more effort.

Stretch goals must be within a perceived window of difficulty if people are to sustain the effort to achieve them: either “too hard” and “not hard enough” will make people give up in predictable patterns (also measured as systolic blood pressure).

Given that they require additional effort and new thinking, stretch goals aren’t always a company’s optimal default option. Sometimes checklist goals are necessary and even ideal. But to support engagement and tap the full potential of an enterprise’s team, stretch goals—supported by the right tactics—are an essential element in HR’s arsenal.