The World of Work Project

Goal-Setting: Common Mistakes

While goal-setting is a very powerful and helpful tool, it’s also possible to create goals which are damaging to individuals and organizations. Having poorly thought through goals, too many goals or goals which are too specific, short-term or tempting can all be detrimental.

Summary by The World of Work Project

When Goal-Setting doesn’t work

Goal-setting is a very popular and effective tool for both personal and organizational management and change, but it doesn’t always work. There are several ways in which goals can be incorrectly used, which can have a negative effect on organizations or individuals. We explore a few of these ways here.

Good tools are often misused.

Too specific

While, per the SMART model goals need to be specific, it’s also possible for them to be too specific. If those setting the goals, or delivering the goals, lose sight of the overall big picture objectives, then performance and motivation may suffer. This is particularly worth considering when goals can potentially contribute towards unhelpful, siloed mentality across teams or divisions.

Too many

While it’s good to have a mix of goals to ensure a range of performance and behavior criteria are met, it’s very possible to have too many. When there are too many goals, individuals focus on the easier ones and let the more complex ones slip.

Too soon

When goals are too short term in focus, individuals and organizations can again lose sight of their own or their organization’s larger, longer term objectives.

Too tempting

When specific goals are very tempting, particularly if they are rewarded in certain ways, they can lead to bad behaviors. There have been a huge number of examples of this throughout time. Some more recent examples include events such as the collapse of Enron, Payment Protection Insurance misselling in the UK and the Wells Fargo conduct issues in the US surrounding the creation of multiple accounts.

Some goals may lead to dubious or unethical behaviors.

Unintended consequences

Another common problem with goals is that they are “gamed” by those charged with delivering them. What this often means is that individuals achieve the letter of the goal, but not the spirit of the goal. Unless goals are well thought out, there may be ways for individuals to achieve them without actually helping their organizations.

A great, perhaps apocryphal, example of this is in relation to goals around “return on capital employed”. The intention of the goal is to encourage individuals to increase returns. However, the goal can be more easily achieve in the very short term by reducing capital. This, of course, can have hugely damaging consequences for the future of an organization.

The World of Work Project View

Goals and objectives are very helpful when they are set well. However, in many instances they are not well thought through. Many leaders and organizations don’t put sufficient effort into their goal setting process, which means that tracking and reporting against their goals is a burden that adds little to no value. At an individual level this can result in resentment against the performance management process that organization’s implement.

We have a different and perhaps more complex set of issues in relation to the use of goals that, perhaps unintentionally, drive unethical behaviors. We know that sometimes employees go too far in their efforts to achieve their goals, but we also fully believe that leadership is responsible for the cultures, structures and goals that encourage these sometimes unethical behaviors. We would say that leadership are often complicit in creating the cultures and goals that enable this negative behavior, though they may protest otherwise.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based in part on our own experiences and in part on work by Lisa D. Ordóñez et al and published in the article: “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting”.


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