Sharing your goals can help you commit to them — but only with the right people

A new set of studies found that people who shared their goals with others showed better commitment to fulfilling their objectives. There’s a catch: this only works with people that we believe are higher status than ourselves.

Thinking about writing a novel or finishing a marathon? It might be better to do more and talk less, some would say.

There’s this popular notion that you should keep your dreams and lofty intentions to yourself otherwise the act of sharing your goals can keep yourself from reaching those goals.

This stems from a widely cited study performed by researchers at New York University in 2009, which concluded that the simple act of sharing your goal publicly can make you less likely to do the work to achieve it.  

The explanation is that once you share your intention with other people, social recognition is a reward that may cause you to reduce your efforts — a sort of validation before the fact.

Howard Klein, a professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University, claims that this study’s conclusions aren’t nuanced enough. In a newly published paper, Klein and colleagues performed far more extensive studies, finding evidence to the contrary.

Namely, sharing your goals actually helps you commit to them — but only if the person on the receiving end is higher value, i.e. a person whom you perceive as having more prestige and respect than yourself. In other words, a person whose opinion you care about.

“You don’t want them to think less of you because you didn’t attain your goal,” Klein said.

One of the studies performed by the Ohio State team found that those who share their personal career goals had a higher commitment to attaining those goals when those goals were shared with someone of higher status.

In another study, 171 undergraduate students were asked to move a slider on a computer screen to the number 50 as many times as they could in the allotted time. After an initial trial run, the participants were asked to repeat the task, only this time they also had to write down a goal. The participants were informed that a lab assistant would check on their goals.

There were two different versions of this assistant — the same person, just dressed differently.

In one version, the lab assistant was dressed in a sharp suit and introduced himself as a doctoral student in the business school and an expert in today’s study topic. The undergraduate participants rated this version as a higher-status person than themselves.

In the second version, the lab assistant was dressed in casual clothing and told the participants he was a student at a local community college who was working part-time at the business school. This time, participants rated the assistant below them.

A third group of participants didn’t share their goals with anyone.

Those who shared their goals with the higher-status assistant were more committed to their goals than were those who spoke to the lower-status assistant. And, indeed, those whose goals were shared with the high-status person did perform better at the task. Meanwhile, those who shared their goal with the low-status assistant performed no better or worse than those who told no one about their goal.

Finally, a third study analyzed the effect of “evaluation apprehension”. Its results showed that the participants who cared more about what the lab assistant thought of them were more committed to their goals. This evaluation apprehension was more likely to occur when the lab assistant was perceived as higher status.

Evaluation apprehension is what may explain why goal sharing with a high-status person can improve the odds of achievement — but it can also go south easily if we put too much pressure upon ourselves.

“We didn’t find it in this study, but it is possible that you may create so much anxiety in trying to impress someone that it could interfere with your performance,” Klein said.

So, it seems like speaking openly about goals can actually help — as long as you are careful to share them with a mentor, supervisor, or some person you hold in high esteem.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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