The dark side of goals
As we reach the half way point of 2017, I’m sure that many of you have recently been, or will soon be, in the process of reflecting on the goals that you, your team, or even your organisation set at the beginning of the year. This is understandable, especially when considering that over 40 years of research that has suggested that goal setting can improve performance through channelling people’s motivation, attention and persistence.1 However, could goals also carry detrimental side effects that are largely neglected? I think that, under certain circumstances, they can.
One well-known story that illustrates this is that of Ford Motor Company in the late 1960s. At this time, the CEO of Ford announced the goal of producing a new car that cost less than $2,000 before 1970. This challenging goal and tight deadline led many managers to avoid the necessary safety checks. As many of you will know, it turned out that this car, the Ford Pinto, had a faulty design that caused it to ignite on impact. Due to the fires caused by this design error, 53 deaths and many more injuries occurred.
You might, of course, argue that an isolated anecdote such as this doesn’t provide much evidence that goal setting can carry detrimental outcomes. Nevertheless, there is academic research that suggests that, under certain conditions, goals can indeed carry harmful side effects.2 Here, I’ll consider just three lessons that I’ve taken from the research.
Goals should not be too specific
It is generally recommended that goals should be specific. However, research has equally suggested that goals can be too specific when they lead individuals to neglect unrelated, but potentially important, factors.3 In the Ford example, the narrow goals led managers to neglect wider, critical factors such as the safety of the vehicle. To take another contemporary example of this, many academics have argued that Ofsted’s goals centred on academic excellence can have a broader negative impact on children’s creativity and development.4
Goals should not be too challenging
It’s also widely recommended that goals should be challenging, but not so challenging that they are perceived as unrealistic since this can become demotivating. However, the anecdote cited above suggests that goals that are too challenging can foster even worse outcomes than demotivating individuals. In line with this example, various studies have found robust evidence that unrealistic goals can promote risk-taking5 and unethical behaviour.6
Consider what happens after goal attainment
There is also the risk that people perceive their goals as ceilings for performance. Although this tendency varies between individuals, there is research to suggest that when individuals reach goals, they stop investing effort in the task.7 To illustrate this point, this might mean that after meeting their monthly sales quota, a salesperson chooses to spend the rest of the month playing golf rather than working on further sales leads. Goals should, therefore, be regularly reinvestigated and set appropriately.
To conclude, I’m not endorsing the view that goals are inherently harmful or that you shouldn’t be setting goals this month. There are, after all, myriad studies that have documented the immense potential of goal setting. Nor am I suggesting that the possible consequences are likely to be as catastrophic as those witnessed by Ford. What I do want to do, however, is to draw attention to the potentially negative side effects of goals that are not carefully designed and monitored.
1Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. American Psychologist, 57, 705-717.
2Ordoñez, L. D., Schweitzer, M. E., Galinsky, A. D. & Bazerman, M. H. (2009). Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of overprescribing goal setting. Academy of Management Perspectives, 23, 6-16.
3Staw, B. M. & Boettger, R. D. (1990). Task revision: A neglected form of work performance. Academy of Management Journal, 33(3), 534-559.
4Carr, S. (2015). Excellence is not the only point of education. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/excellence-is-not-the-only-point-of-education-38148
5Galinsky, A. D., Mussweiler, T. & Medvec, V. H. (2002). Disconnecting outcomes and evaluations: The role of negotiator focus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1131-1140.
6Schweitzer, M. E., Ordoñez, L. D. & Douma, B. (2004). Goal setting as a motivator of unethical behaviour. Academy of Management Journal, 47(3), 422-432.
7Camerer, C., Babcock, L., Loewenstein, G. & Thaler, R. (1997). Labor Supply of New York City Cabdrivers: One day at a time. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112(2), 407–441.