How Should We Be Using Goals?

June 14, 2018
dart in bullseye

Goals are good, right? It’s true that they focus our efforts and that they can encourage our employees to work harder and persist longer in order to meet those goals, especially when some incentives are attached. I often use goals in my personal life to get me through particularly boring and arduous tasks—like swimming a mile. I know that it takes 36 laps which I usually break down into smaller sets. Just finish these last 15 laps, I tell myself—somehow I get through it and feel proud of my accomplishment. The same thing happens in the workplace—study after study has shown the positive effects of goal setting. There is an entire industry based on helping organizations implement goal setting systems.

So, everybody should be using goals, right? Well, a paper I wrote (“Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting”) with my colleagues Maurice Schweitzer at Wharton, Adam Galinksy at Columbia, and Max Bazerman at Harvard suggests that we should pause before blindly starting a goal setting system. We liken goals to a powerful drug that has positive effects but formidable side-effects. Although goals are used in organizations much like an over-the-counter remedy, we argue that it should be treated like a prescription medication—carefully prescribed and monitored.

Consider the possible negative side-effects. The Veteran’s Affairs had a problem—veterans seeking medical assistance waited up to 115 days before their first visit. The VA attempted to eliminate a backlog of patients by setting a laudable goal of a 14-day wait which they “almost reached” by posting a 24-day wait. However, those setting the goals did not stop to ask how this monumental feat was achieved with no new facilities or medical personnel. It soon became painfully clear just how they “almost reached” this goal—they purged waiting lists and kept secret shadow lists of patients to make it appear that they were doing a better job than they actually were doing. Unfortunately, these misrepresentations were shown to cause the deaths of 40 and a waiting list of 1,500 veterans in one facility alone.

Volkswagen misrepresented emissions tests to meet two goals: 1) tough EPA emissions standards and 2) to become the largest automobile company in the world. They actually “met” these goals for about a month when it was discovered that software was deliberately written to register emissions that were up to 40 times lower than actually produced by the vehicle.

Sadly, the relentless pursuit to achieve performance goals has shown devastating personal consequences. One pharmaceutical salesman in India committed suicide, leaving the note: “I’m going to commit suicide because I can’t meet my company’s sales targets and my company is pressuring me.”

So, what is the take home message? Eliminate goals? That wasn’t our message. We simply wanted managers to be made aware of the potential problems with goals so that they could develop the motivation system that works best for their organization. Basically, nothing replaces good management, monitoring, and concentrated thinking.

Any incentive system, management technique/fad, or training program has its flaws—we just have to continually ask ourselves if what we are doing in the organization is working and make sense for us at this time. Sorry, I wish I had an easier answer—but if it were that easy, everybody could do it!

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