I recently read a paper titled Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, published by the Harvard Business School about the seedy underbelly of goal setting and the subsequent results. You can read the full text of the paper here or see the summary here. The main point of the paper is summed up in the following quote.
In this article, we argue that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.
It definitely gave me pause, because we set goals using quantitative measures for everyone at our organization. So should we stop setting goals, and trust that everyone will try to do his or her best without any measurement?
I don’t think so. I understand the cautionary tale from this research, but I think there are other ways to navigate to a positive result. My company previously used performance reviews that looked at “soft” skills only. We found through analysis that we could basically determine what an employee’s score would be by knowing who their supervisor was. The score was a reflection of the supervisor, not the employee. When we added quantitative metrics, this prediction happily became more difficult. We set goals to evaluate performance, because if you don’t have measurable goals, it can be hard to ensure an objective assessment of performance. We also set goals to provide motivation and feedback to employees. Try to imagine a football game with no scoreboard, how would the players know if they were doing well?
We do try to be very aware of the goals we’re setting and what behaviors those goals will reinforce. My degree is in psychology, and I always thought that behavioral psychology was too cold, and didn’t take into account free will and other human traits. But as I’ve worked in the business world, I’ve come to understand that behaviorism is a very important field of study. The big take-away from my college classes is that a reward isn’t necessarily what you think it is, it’s what causes repetition of a behavior; and that you get repeated behaviors when you reward them.
We reward our restaurants on their profits, but we also reward them on their sales. We do this because we know that there are ways to hit that bottom line at the expense of the customer experience if that is all we’re asking people to focus on. So we wanted to make sure that their focus remained on creating sales as well as cutting costs. The real key to properly using goals is to make sure that the goals don’t create short-term gains at the expense of long-term success. If we ensure that we reward a focus on enduring success as well as current success, goals can and will help the organization to continue to move forward.
Darcy Dees works as the Compensation Manager for Rock Bottom Restaurants, Inc., headquartered in Louisville, CO. She has been working in Compensation for over 5 years now and recently attained her Certified Compensation Professional (CCP) designation. She spends what little free time she has hiking and reading.