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Goals Gone Wild

My third grader recently came home with a list of challenging goals for the month ahead. She had written down on a sheet of paper:

I will participate more in class.

I will raise my hand when I want to say something.

I will play with friends I don’t usually play with.

The point is to encourage the kids to set their own goals and to help them come up with a plan to achieve them. It is empowering for the kids to set their own goals instead of having a parent or a teacher set goals for them. As my daughter says proudly, “my goals are all mine.”

Goal-setting is a powerful motivator and has been shown to boost performance in all kinds of settings—sports, education, dieting, management, to name just a few. Politicians, celebrities, and gurus tout the benefits of setting goals. As uber-athlete Bo Jackson once said, “Set your goals high and don’t stop until you get there.”

I am a big believer in setting challenging goals and have witnessed firsthand how helpful they can be for patients navigating their way through a difficult time. But can goal setting go too far? Absolutely, says a team of behavioral scientists at Harvard Business School.  In a paper entitled Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, they argue that goal-setting can be downright harmful:

“We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

Sears’ experience with goal-setting in the 1990s provides a typical example of goals gone wrong. Sears set specific sales goals for auto repair staff of charging $147/hour. To meet this goal, staff overcharged for work and completed unnecessary repairs.

“Ultimately, Sears’ Chairman Edward Brennan acknowledged that goal setting had motivated Sears’ employees to deceive customers. Sears’ goal setting process for service advisers created an environment where mistakes did occur,’ Brennan admitted.”

Enron is another classic example of goal setting gone wrong.

“In sum, ‘Enron executives were meeting their goals, but they were the wrong goals,’ According to employee compensation expert Solange Charas. By focusing on revenue rather than profit, Enron executives drove the company into the ground.”

Other examples abound—for individuals as well as organizations.  If a student’s goal is to get an “A” in math no matter what, might she be tempted to copy another student’s work? If a bride’s goal is to lose 10 pounds for her wedding, it is possible she will resort to unhealthy behaviors to shed the weight.

If you don’t want your goals to lead you astray, be sure that they reflect your core values. Because if they don’t (apologies Bo Jackson) you better stop before you reach them.

I wish you all the best,

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