Despite the popularity of goal setting, there is compelling evidence that regardless of good intentions and effort, people and organizations consistently fall short of achieving their goals. More often than not, the fault is attributed to the goal setter. But the real problem may be in the efficacy of goal setting itself.
The Center For Disease Control estimates that 34% of Americans are overweight and a further 34% are obese, which means almost 70% of the population are dangerously unhealthy. A curious result, despite the proliferation of weight loss programs that usually focus on weight-loss goals. The easy explanation would be to attribute fault to lack of will or effort. But the problem may be inherent in the validity of goal setting.
In the early 2000's , General Motors had set a goal to capture 29% of the American auto market. They even produced corporate pins for people to wear with the number 29 on them. Needless to say they never achieved that goal, and without a government bailout, may not have even survived.
Our society, at both the individual level and in organizations, has an obsession with goal setting, particularly "stretch" goals or "audacious goals." We tie goals to accomplishment. In our culture, an individual or organizations cannot be considered successful unless goals are achieved. And the usual motivation method used by leaders to achieve these goals is the continual focus on "improvement," "bigger and better," through harder and harder work, and increased productivity. And the way to measure that success is to measure goal attainment. Thus self-help gurus such as Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy and others emphasized the necessary link between goals and success.
In some ways both Santa Clause and The Secret have done us a disservice. Both focused on wishing something would happen and either through the process of writing it down and/or visualization, it is supposed to magically appear. Many management and self-help gurus cite research, reportedly done at Harvard or Yale universities, which describes why only 3% of Harvard MBAs make 10 times as much money as the other 97%--because they write down their goals. The problem with this claim is that no such research study exists.
While conventional wisdom has it that goal setting is critical to improved performance, there is compelling evidence to the contrary.
In my article in the Financial Post, I said, "The inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioral change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns."
Aubrey Daniels, in his book, Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money, argues that stretch goals are an ineffective practice. Daniels cites a study that shows when individuals repeatedly fail to reach stretch goals their performance declines. Another study showed 10% of employees actually achieved stretch goals. Daniels argues that goals are motivating people only when they have received positive rewards and feedback from reaching goals in the past.
Adam Galinsky, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and one of the authors of a Harvard Business School report called Goals Gone Wild," argues that "goal setting has been treated like an over-the-counter medication when it should really be treated with more care, as a prescription-strength mediation." He argues that goal setting can focus attention too much or on the wrong things and can lead people to participate in extreme behaviors to achieve the goals.
The authors of Goals Gone Wild, have identified several specific negative side effects associated with goal setting: "An overly narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas; a rise in unethical behavior; distorted risk preferences; corrosion of organizational culture; and reduced intrinsic motivation."
Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania and Lisa Ordonez of the University of Arizona, co-authors of Goals Gone Wild, have studied the psychology of goal attainment, and in several experiments have shown that when people self-report their achievement of goals, if they are not entirely successful, a significant percentage of them lie to make up the difference.
Sim Sitkin a Duke University business school professor, completed a study of stretch goals, and found they were most likely to be pursued by desperate, embattled companies that would have difficulty adapting if the goals failed.
L.A. King and C.M. Burton in an article entitled, The Hazards of Goal Pursuit, for the American Psychological Association, argue that goals should be used only in the narrowest of circumstances: "The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other, and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain."
Max Bazerman, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of Goals Gone Wild, argues that rather than relying on goals, we should create workplaces and schools that foster interest in and a passion for work.
Moreover, the blind, value-free pursuit of goals without an examination of the consequences of their attainment and the cost of achieving the goals has been questioned by a few management scholars. These scholars argue that the price we pay for overly focusing on goals is a loss of independent thinking and personal initiative. The Ford Pinto, Enron's climb to success, the rash lending practices of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the excesses of Wall Street traders, and the lack of environmental oversight of Gulf deep water drilling, all reflect the downside of defining success as the mere attainment of goals. Work, particularly knowledge work, requires a certain amount of creativity and judgment. Reducing complex activities to a set of goal numbers can end up rewarding the wrong behaviors.
There is an addiction in our culture to "getting more," the "going for the goals" hype is disconnected from peoples' authentic selves, and their values.
Finally, there are psychological manifestations of not achieving goals that may be more damaging that not having any goals at all. The process sets up desires that are removed from everyday reality. Whenever we desire things that we don't have, we set our brain's nervous system to produce negative emotions. Second, highly aspirational goals require us to develop new competencies, some of which may be beyond current capabilities. As we develop these competencies, we are likely to experience failures, which then become de-motivational. Thirdly, goal setting sets up an either-or polarity of success. The only true measure can either be 100% attainment or perfection, or 99% and less, which is failure. We can then excessively focus on the missing or incomplete part of our efforts, ignoring the successful parts. Fourthly, goal setting doesn't take into account random forces of chance. You can't control all the environmental variables to guarantee 100% success.
Mindulness has gathered the attention of brain researchers, coaches, psychologists and medical practitioners recently. A fundamental concept in mindfulness, is focusing on being in the moment, the present. This presents an interesting problem for the goal setter, where the focus is on the future. How can you be focusing on the present and also be thinking about the future?
The other problem is that goals are often cast in the image of the ideal or perfection, which activates the self-judging thinking of "I should be this way." This counteracts the positive need for self-acceptance.
And if the goal is not attained, we can often engage in thinking we are failures, not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough, etc. So the unattainment of goals can create emotions of unworthiness.
We must also make a distinction between our intentions vs. goals. An intention is a direction we want to pursue, preferably with passion. My experience is that people are often confused, and unclear about the intentions of how they want to live and achieve, and therefore a focus on goals doesn't assist them with clarifying their intentions.
When I work with people as their coach and mentor, they often tell me they've set goals such as "I want to be wealthy," or "I want to be more beautiful/popular," "I want a better relationship/ideal partner." They don't realize they've just described the symptoms or outcomes of the problems in their life. The cause of the problem, that many resist facing, is themselves. They don't realize that for a change to occur, if one is desirable, they must change themselves. Once they make the personal changes, everything around them can alter, which may make the goal irrelevant.
There's an old saying: "you don't get what you want in life, you get in life what you are ."