Are we making too much of goals?

Darren Baguley

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Business goals, life goals, fitness goals, relationship goals – there is no self-development book or programme that does not emphasise the importance of goals. But what if there’s more to it?

Company managers, self-development gurus, even relationship counsellors all emphasise the importance of goals. Much of this approach stems from management guru Peter Drucker’s theory of “management by objectives”, first floated as far back as 1954. Drucker’s idea was that management would set the company’s overall goals and each worker’s goals would then align with those of the firm. He also believed that these goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-sensitive), a concept which has stuck.

While Drucker came to consider this approach overly bureaucratic, companies embraced the idea, with goal-setting becoming the silver bullet for boosting employee engagement and driving performance. When it comes to individuals, whether it’s career, life or relationships, we’re told we should all have goals.

Goals gone wild?

This has been the dominant paradigm for decades, but what if overemphasising goals – especially those that are based on measurable outcomes – often leads to reduced intrinsic motivation, irrational risk-taking and unethical behaviour? The first major study questioning whether goals really are as powerful as they’re made out to be was by Harvard Business School academics Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky and Max H. Bazerman in their 2009 literature review, Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting.

Side effects and unintended consequences

Ordóñez and her team found that overprescribing goals can lead to side effects that affect the performance of both individuals and organisations. For example, overly specific goals can result in a narrowing of focus. And fixating on a goal intensely can lead to tunnel vision, which means people overlook elements of a task that are unrelated to the goal even though sometimes these overlooked details may actually be important.

The review also showed that assigning too many goals can encourage people to eschew more expansive ideas to concentrate on the ‘low-hanging fruit’ – tasks that are easier to achieve than others – so they can still say they’re achieving their goals.

Goals also needed to be given an appropriate time horizon to avoid distorting long and short-term priorities. Making objectives too short term can lead to behaviour that in the long term harms their organisation as people focus on achieving the goal at the expense of everything else. By contrast, having too long a time frame for a goal can lead to uncertainty about the immediate course of action.

Setting goals at a level that is challenging enough to inspire people to excel, but not so challenging that employees give up at the first hurdle, can also be a difficult balancing act with multiple unintended consequences. If a task is too challenging, it can dissuade people from risk-taking and instead encourage unethical methods to reach their goals – whether it’s misrepresenting their performance levels or engaging in outright deceit.

One size does not fit all

A study by Michael Shayne Gary, Miles M. Yang, Philip W. Yetton and John D. Sterman, Stretch Goals and the Distribution of Organizational Performance, found that while “stretch goals” may benefit some organisations, it’s not one size fits all. Indeed, the experimental study found that stretch goals, compared to moderate goals, improved performance for a few participants, but the majority of organisations abandoned the stretch goal over time, substituting lower self-set goals or – when under threat of bankruptcy – adopting a survival goal.

Bård Kuvaas, Robert Buch and Anders Dysvik’s paper, Performance Management: Perceiving Goals as Invariable and Implications for Perceived Job Autonomy and Work Performance, found that if employees perceived goals as invariable – that is, they must meet those goals without exception, even if situational factors or factors that are not associated with goals are more important – it had a negative effect on performance if the employee had a low level of autonomy.

What must be done then?

What then is the future for goals? While there are clear negative consequences to improperly defined goals, getting rid of them completely risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. One company that thinks it has the answer is BetterWorks, a startup producing software that allows employees to collaborate in setting goals. Their app allows teams to see how everyone else is doing.

Ordóñez and her team instead caution organisations that goals are not to be taken lightly. Managers need to be cognisant of the unintended consequences and side effects of goal-setting, and maintain close supervision.

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