Setting goals is a good idea.
It’s beneficial. It’s important. It’s necessary.
Or, at least that’s what many people believe.
The idea is so widely believed, it has become the cornerstone of culture in business, politics, schools, sports, sometimes even our personal lives.
They do think that goal setting can be beneficial.
However, the benefits have probably been exaggerated, while systematic harms have been largely ignored.
What can we do about it?
Set goals more carefully—and with greater understanding of the damage that can be done.
1. Goals can steal focus
In practice, people tend to focus narrowly on short-term goals that are very specific.
This makes it easy to define goals, track and measure results.
But it also tends to steal focus from the bigger picture, and from longer-term goals.
Why are you pursuing the goal? What are the effects, intended or unintended? How does it relate to your mission and vision for the future? Are there other strategies you might be ignoring?
Never forget to ask these questions.
2. Goals can distort risk preferences
When people are faced with more challenging goals, they tend to take bigger and bigger risks.
That can be very bad.
After all, setting goals has no effect on the actual chances of a risk paying off (or causing serious damage).
It just makes people take bigger risks.
3. Goals can encourage unethical behavior
Specific expectations or incentives will often reward unethical behaviors.
How can you reach a goal easier, faster, or more often?
Unfortunately, the answer might be lying, cheating, or cutting corners.
This is especially true when the goals are more difficult, and people are more willing to take risks.
4. Goals can kill motivation
The strongest form of motivation, by far, comes from within a person. It occurs naturally.
Psychologists call this “intrinsic motivation.”
People really want to do things that they find helpful, interesting, meaningful, or enjoyable.
The more you interfere with this motivation, the more likely you are to undermine it.
5. Goals can damage organizational culture
Think about everything we’ve discussed so far.
Stealing focus from the bigger picture, the mission and vision for the future. Encouraging risk-taking and unethical behaviors. Undermining motivation.
These side-effects lead to costly mistakes, reduced performance, sometimes even public scandals.
But in a more subtle way, they can also destroy morale and undermine the entire culture of an organization.
These things add up.
Setting goals can be good. Just keep in mind that it’s not so simple.
Know the risks, and you just might be able to avoid them.