The case against goal setting

The main reasons goal setting is problematic:

  • When goals are too specific, they can focus attention so narrowly that other important aspects of a task or problem are overlooked.
  • The goal-setting system itself may be so narrowly focused that important aspects are not actually measured.
  • When there are too many goals being pursued at the same time, the result can be certain goals being more likely to be ignored than others, with the easier goals receiving more focus in order to create the perception of achieving more. Consequently, quality can be sacrificed in favour of quantity.
  • Goals with an inappropriate time horizon can result in focus on short-term activities that harm the organisation in the long-run.
  • When goals are too challenging there can be less motivation to try to achieve them.
  • Goal setting can harm intrinsic motivation as greater emphasis is placed on extrinsic rewards.
  • In complex situations, greater focus can be placed on performance goals instead of learning goals, resulting in inhibited learning.

Negative behaviours can be triggered by goal setting:

  • Goals that are too challenging can result in increased risk-taking.
  • Unethical behaviour can also stem from goals that are too challenging – both in terms of unethical methods used to achieve the goal and/or misrepresentation of the performance level. This can result in harm to an otherwise ethical organisational culture.
  • The decrease in satisfaction that arises from not meeting goals that are too challenging can have a negative effect on how people view themselves, and future performance.
  • A culture of competition can be fostered, instead of one of cooperation and collaboration.

In order to make goal setting more effective, managers need to:

  • Avoid setting goals that increase employee stress
  • Refrain from punishing failure when goals are not met
  • Provide the tools needed to increase the chance of achieving stretch goals
  • Consider whether goals are in fact necessary

Personal reflection

During my career in the IT industry, I have seen many examples of goals gone wild like this, with all of the above problems and negative behaviours manifesting to some degree!

See also, the case for goal setting.

(Source: Academy of Management Perspectives, 2009, cited in B325, Organizational Collaboration).

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