Pushing Too Hard? Unattainable Organizational Goals and Frontline Employee Turnover

Date01 June 2020
Published date01 June 2020
AuthorJustin M. Stritch,Nathan Favero,Angel Luis Molina
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2020, Vol. 40(2) 272 –296
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X18805795
Pushing Too Hard?
Unattainable Organizational
Goals and Frontline
Employee Turnover
Justin M. Stritch1, Angel Luis Molina Jr.1,
and Nathan Favero2
The creation of organization-level performance goals has evolved into a ubiquitous
facet of the study and practice of public management. In this article, we theoretically
and empirically examine the relationship between unattainable organizational goals
and collective frontline employee turnover, and consider the moderating role of a
public organization’s performance context on the relationship. While the findings
indicate a positive relationship between unattainable goals and collective frontline
employee turnover, the effect is conditional on organizational performance. The
research offers nuanced insights into the establishment of goals in public organizations
and has important implications for managing personnel on the frontlines of public
service delivery.
organization goals, unattainable goals, collective frontline employee turnover, organization
The creation of organization-level performance goals has evolved into a ubiquitous
facet of the practice of public management and the study of public administration
(Moynihan, 2008). Scholars’ continued interest in public service performance is a
response to earlier calls for public organizations to become more results-oriented (e.g.,
Hood, 1991; Kettl, 1997) and an emphasis on organizational outcomes rather than
1Arizona State University, Phoenix, USA
2American University, Washington, DC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Justin M. Stritch, Arizona State University, 411 N. Central Avenue, 480-C, Phoenix, AZ 85004, USA.
Email: jstritch@asu.edu
805795ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X18805795Review of Public Personnel AdministrationStritch et al.
Stritch et al. 273
organizational processes in the provision of public goods and services (Olvera &
Avellaneda, 2017). Internationally, public organizations have implemented perfor-
mance management systems with performance targets, goals, or objectives at the
national, subnational, and local levels of government, as well as in special purpose
governments, such as school districts (e.g., Boyne, 2002; Ingraham, Joyce, & Donahue,
2003; McAdam & Walker, 2003; Moynihan, 2008; Moynihan & Kroll, 2016; Radin,
2006; Sun & Van Ryzin, 2014; Wang, 2000).
While the approaches to—and definitions of—performance management systems
vary, central to any system is the identification of performance goals and targets (Behn,
2003; Olvera & Avellaneda, 2017). While there are challenges to successfully using
performance information (e.g., Moynihan, 2008; Moynihan & Kroll, 2016; Radin,
2006; Taylor, 2009), the identification of organization performance goals and targets is
important for multiple reasons. First, goals and performance targets fulfill a key evalu-
ative function, serving as benchmarks in the assessment of a public program’s efficacy
and the performance of the public firm as a collective entity (Boyne & Chen, 2007).
Goals and performance targets can facilitate enhanced accountability and the oversight
of agencies by elected leaders (Brignall & Modell, 2000), and information on current
performance can be used to improve future performance (Heinrich, 2002; Moynihan,
2005). Second, performance targets and organizational goals play an important role in
an organization’s decision making, guiding the alignment of resources, activities, and
outputs in pursuit of performance objectives. As Behn (2003) notes, the identification
of organization or program performance targets and goals allows managers to commu-
nicate clear objectives that employees work to meet within a specified time.
In this article, we consider an important aspect of public service goals that, to date,
has received little attention—the underlying difficulty of goals and how this might
affect an organization’s frontline employees. At the individual level, challenging and
concise goals are a prerequisite in the directing and channeling of human behavior
toward higher levels of performance in an organizational setting (Locke & Latham,
1990, 2002, 2006). However, what happens when an organization’s goals or perfor-
mance targets are not realistic and considered unattainable? Previous research demon-
strates there are a number of potential negative consequences for employees and their
organizations when goals are unattainable, including dissatisfaction, decreased work
effort, and feelings of alienation and withdrawal (Bandura, 1977; Galinsky, Mussweiler,
& Medvec, 2002; Garland, 1983; Kenis, 1979; Mussweiler & Strack, 2000; Sitkin,
See, Miller, Lawless, & Carton, 2011; Stedry & Kay, 1966; Welsh & Ordóñez, 2014).
Yet, the survey dataset we analyze indicates that setting unattainable goals may be
quite commonplace. More than 40% of managers responding to this survey indicate
that they “tend to agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement that they “sometimes
set goals that are probably too lofty to actually achieve.”
To shed new light on how goals and performance objectives affect public organi-
zations and their employees, we analyze the relationship between the pursuit of unat-
tainable performance goals and the collective turnover of a public service
organization’s frontline personnel. Our choice of outcome stems from recent research
that considers collective frontline employee turnover a key organizational outcome

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