Goal setting considered harmful

targetThere are facts of life, and then there are goals. It’s important to know the difference. A fact of life may be, “Our customers are demanding not more than 3% defective – if we can’t reach this level we’ll be out of business.” A goal is an arbitrary number that is pulled out of the air. Facts of life will always be with us – there’s no escaping them. However, we can choose whether we want to set goals for ourselves and others. My aim in this post is to get you thinking about the harmful effects of goals and to suggest an alternative.

This paper from the Harvard Business School documents the dangers of goal setting. Every manager of people should read it. Here are some conclusions you’ll find there:

While influenced by a goal, we’re more prone to risky behavior, short-term thinking, unethical methods, lying, and cheating.

If we hit the goal, we tend to relax. If we don’t hit the goal, we feel shame, which reduces our ability to learn from any mistakes we made while pursuing the goal.

Goals distract us from important long-term aims, and encourage competition in the workplace, destroying cooperation and fostering resentment between departments.

Goals are an extrinsic motivator that, if used enough, will eventually replace intrinsic motivation. Goal setting leads to a culture of overjustification – everybody needing an incentive in order to be motivated to do anything, which increases costs to the company while turning employees into mercenaries.

What about setting goals for ourselves? Take a common example: weight loss. How many times have you seen people set a goal for themselves to lose weight? Say 10% of your body weight, or some number, like 10 pounds. And how long does it last? This is a great example of how goals without a method can lead to short-term behavioral changes that aren’t sustainable.

Rather than setting a goal for losing 10 pounds, a more sustainable approach would be to set an aim to live a healthy lifestyle, then study health, nutrition, exercise, etc. and come up with a method for accomplishing your aim. A goal is just a number without any method of accomplishing it. By studying health, you’ll gain the knowledge you need to predictably change your life. And as you faithfully execute your method, you’ll see results.

Think for a minute about the difference between an aim and a goal. One sets a direction, the other sets a destination. Very different. However, just having an aim is not enough. You must determine a method for accomplishing the aim, otherwise you’re just a dreamer. In a company setting, management is responsible for providing these methods. Holding people accountable for numerical targets without giving them a method is abdicating that responsibility.

Goal setting can wreak havoc on companies (the article referenced above provides a bunch of examples). Numerical goals include quotas, targets, “stretch goals”, dates, and so on. Often we see companies that try to optimize each department’s output by giving each of them numerical goals. Sales has a quota. Marketing has a target for number of leads. Engineering gets a date for delivering a feature. This is not how you optimize the whole system; indeed this destroys the system as every department selfishly chases their own goals, without thinking of the longer term consequences or the impact on others in the organization. Everyone is pulling in different directions in order to hit their goal.

Note that time-boxing is different than goal-setting. Sometimes you want to limit cost while you explore options, and you might give yourself or your team a certain amount of time for exploration. You’re not telling them what they have to deliver – they’ll deliver whatever they can to you in that time frame. But fixing both scope and time is a recipe for long-term disaster and short-term demoralization.

2 thoughts on “Goal setting considered harmful

  1. […] targets everywhere I look. Goal setting has become an unquestioned strategy for improvement. But there are some real dark sides to goal setting, and one big one is short-term thinking. An aim tends to foster longer term thinking and […]


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