“Goals Gone Wild”: The Use and Abuse of Goals

The Use and Abuse of Goals

An article in The Economist (7-March-2015 Issue) discussed the side effects of goal setting, more specifically the perils of overprescribing goals. This article echoes my earlier commentary on “The Trouble with Targets and Goals.”

The Economist article mentioned a Harvard Business School paper titled “Goals Gone Wild” by Lisa D. Ordonez, et al. This engaging literature review discusses many of the predictable side effects of goal setting on individual and organizational performance:

  • When goals are too specific, they can narrow people’s focus. People tend to fixate on a goal so intensely that they overlook aspects of a task that are unrelated to the goal. Even if unrelated, these overlooked details may be significant enough to warrant attention.
  • When people are assigned too many goals, this can encourage them to concentrate on tasks that are comparatively easier to achieve.
  • When goals aren’t afforded an appropriate time-horizon, they can distort long-and short-term priorities. Short-term goals can steer people toward myopic behavior that harms their organization in the long term. Conversely, long-term goals can be vague about the immediate course of action and obscure what’s required in the short term.
  • When goals are too challenging, they can discourage risk-taking. As a result, people may use deceitful methods to reach their goals or even misrepresent their performance levels—they may exaggerate their feats, conceal underperformance, or claim unmerited credit. The authors acknowledge the complexity of setting goals “at the most challenging level possible to inspire effort, commitment, and performance—but not so challenging that employees see no point in trying.”
  • When goals are complex, specific, and challenging, they can push people to focus narrowly on performance and neglect opportunities for experiential learning.
  • When goals are comparative, i.e., when goals pit employees against their peers, goals can hinder cooperation between people and even create a culture of unhealthy competition within a team.
  • When goals, by definition, try to increase extrinsic motivation, they can subdue people’s intrinsic motivation. Goals can challenge some people far more or far less than necessary if the intrinsic value of the job itself is already deeply motivating.
  • When goals fail to consider individuals’ skills or prior achievements or when they are not tailored enough, they can be too easy for some and too difficult for others. On the other hand, customizing goals can lead to feeling of discrimination or favoritism.

A Warning Label for Setting Goals

The authors propose a clever cautionary graphic sign and conclude,

For decades, scholars have prescribed goal setting as an all-purpose remedy for employee motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.

Idea for Impact: Set objectives that are not only well designed, but also challenging and attainable.


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