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Problem definition: We investigate the impact of nonbinding (wage-irrelevant) goals, set by a manager, on a team of workers with “weak-link” production technology. Can nonbinding goals improve team production when team members face production complementarity? Academic/practical relevance: Nonbinding goals are easy to implement and ubiquitous in practice. These goals have been shown to improve individual performance, but it remains to be seen if such goals are effective in team production when there is production complementarity among workers. Methodology: We first develop a theoretical model where goals act as reference points for workers’ intrinsic motivation to complete the task. We then test our hypotheses in a controlled, human-subjects experiment. In our experiment, participants act as managers or workers, and we examine the impact of nonbinding goals on team outcomes. Results: Consistent with our model, we find evidence that team production does increase when managers are able to set goals. This effect is strongest when goals are challenging but attainable for weak-link workers. However, we also find evidence that many managers assign goals that are too challenging for weak-link workers, resulting in suboptimal team production, lower profits, and higher wasted performance (performance above the weak-link level). Managerial implications: Our analysis indicates that goals are effective motivators in teams, but some managers may have difficulty overcoming personal biases when setting goals. The task of setting team goals is more complex than setting individual goals, and many managers can benefit from training on how to set good goals for the team. Moreover, our finding that suboptimal goals also increase wasted performance suggests that improving goal-setting strategies is especially important in production settings where overperformance is costly for the firm (scrap, energy use, inventory costs, lower prices as a result of oversupply, etc.).


This article was originally published in Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, volume 22, issue 5, in 2020.

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This article was written and prepared by U.S. government employee(s) on official time and is therefore in the public domain.