When Good Storytelling Goes Bad

Jan 24, 2019

By Lorrie Lykins

Most of us love a good story—especially those inspiring tales delivered from the dais of a conference our employer spent a serious chunk of money sending us to. Those stories light a fire under us and we return to our jobs energized and rededicated to giving our jobs our all. I say "most of us" because researchers tend to be a little outside that norm.

I like to think that most researchers never stop questioning and that they (we) approach information with fairly equal parts of curiosity, tenacity, open-mindedness and skepticism. I'm always curious about the origins of information, and in the case of a survey, I want to know who was surveyed, when they were surveyed and how the questions were asked. I can't sit through a presentation of any sort that relies on research—from a PTA budget report at my kid's school to a presentation of newly crunched data by one of my colleagues—without pondering those very questions. And during presentations I find myself squinting to read the footnoted sources inserted in impossibly tiny font in the corner of PowerPoint slides. This is because at some point in the presentation, my internal narrator interjects something along the lines of: "Oh yeah? Says who?"

The interjections of inner narrators are often the source of some of the more challenging questions we receive from i4cp member organizations—ones that require us as researchers to really dig deep to find the answers. Sometimes those questions or topics run in cycles. Case in point: i4cp's research team is occasionally asked by various members to track down the same bit of research within a relatively short span of time. This phenomenon causes my inner narrator to wonder about the chatter that may be going on in certain functions that cross organization lines, time zones and continents. It's as if something is in the air; there's been a sudden shift in the conversation, one that seemingly prompts nearly every practitioner in a field to talk about the same thing and spurs the same requests for information around that topic from all sides.

One such cluster of requests involves a celebrated Yale study that validates the effects of goal-setting. The usual description provided to us is a variation of: “We heard about a study that was conducted in the 1950s that found a correlation between setting goals and future financial success. Can you send it to us?” The details are that soon-to-be-graduating Yale seniors were asked to ponder their future goals, with one group committing the goals to paper while the other group did not. A follow-up survey conducted a decade later found that the group members who had committed their goals to paper were much more financially successful than their classmates who had not written down their goals.

We've also been asked to locate a Harvard study that purportedly validates the effects of goal-setting. This study was conducted in the 1970s and the particulars run parallel to the Yale study: graduating seniors were asked to contemplate their future goals, some committed the goals to paper, others did not. A follow-up survey found that those with written goals far exceeded the financial success in the long-term of their classmates who had not written down their goals.

What we discovered was that neither the Yale nor the Harvard study actually exists. There is no evidence that the studies took place and no papers were ever published. Yet the "goal-setting to-money" study is a particularly imperishable business myth that has circulated for several decades. It persists despite sound debunking efforts on the part of entities such as Fast Company, which conducted an in-depth investigation of the myth in 1996. The origin of the fable has been traced to the late Mark McCormack, who authored several books, including the bestselling What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School in 1979. McCormack went on to become a lawyer, sports agent and manager who published widely on the topic of golf.

McCormack's book referenced a Harvard study in which he claimed that the 3% of Harvard graduates who had clear, written goals earned ten times as much as their classmates, 97% of whom didn't have clear, written goals. Motivational speakers and business pundits seized on the anecdote, and the legend took off in earnest. Clearly, plenty of folks have been bamboozled by the story of the Yale/Harvard study, including corporate leaders, authors and sought-after speakers such as Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins, who both referenced the fictional study—Ziglar in a best-selling video and Robbins in one of his books.

What's ironic is that Harvard Business School published a paper in 2009, Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, asserting that corporate goal-setting may actually erode performance because it can encourage dishonest behavior on the part of employees.

Of course, the point here is not that we're all just hopelessly gullible; I think it's human nature and perfectly reasonable in most professional milieus to accept what we're told as factual—especially when the information comes from a person of great respect or authority. I mean, who stands up during a keynote address at the annual shareholder's conferences or at their kid's commencement and asks that the speaker (usually an illustrious individual of note for one reason or another) provide attribution for the deeply profound anecdote they just referenced?

We embrace inspiring stories of success and we repeat them to move and motivate others. This particular mythical survey continues to be referenced because the aforementioned bamboozled are credible people who, for whatever reasons, didn't do their homework and have unwittingly contributed to the propagation of what, on the surface, is a great tale of persistence and achievement but is in fact not true.

The lesson here is simply that research is everyone's job. Just because you read it or hear it doesn't necessarily mean it's totally accurate, and if you intend to make something part of your own story—personally or professionally—it's a good idea to check it out.

By the way, i4cp research found that, to its credit, Yale has posted a comment on its website regarding the “goals study of the Class of 1953”: In recent years, we have received a number of requests for information on a reported study based on a survey administered to the Class of 1953 in their senior year and a follow-up study conducted ten years later. This study has been described as how one's goals at graduation related to success and annual incomes achieved during the period. The secretary of the Class of 1953, who had served in that capacity for many years, did not know of the study, nor did any of the fellow class members he 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.

About the Author(s)

Lorrie Lykins, Institute for Corporate Productivity Lorrie Lykins is an associate with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp).