Why Setting Ambitious Goals Backfires [Schwartz]

Source: dilbert

It’s funny and sad at the same time when a Dilbert cartoon comes to life in your company. As Brendan Schwartz, CTO of Wistia recently learned. 

I’ve explored goal setting in the past and it’s definitely a topic that’s due for a more comprehensive post with my updated thinking on it. But I’ll keep this one short and more anecdotal. Schwartz’s piece is super short as it is so there’s not much summarization or synthesis to be done: 

Why Setting Ambitious Goals Backfires

At least in Tech, it’s become accepted as conventional wisdom that people are most motivated when their goals are “stretch” goals — targets that lay just beyond the rational limits of what’s possible. But Schwartz found the opposite at Wistia. Setting stretch goals led to two counter-productive symptoms: 

  1. Short term thinking: stretch goals put the team in a continuous catch-up mode, desperately looking for ways to meet the (short-term) key results, often times, at the expense of values and long-term consequences.
  2. Demotivation: consistent with some supporting academic literature, the Wistia team found that when everyone sets goals they know they can hit with hard work, it creates a cycle of positive reinforcement, keeping people motivated and marching forward. Motivated employees don’t just sit back on their laurels after they achieve their goals. They set new ones, exceed those, and expand their view of what is possible along the way. As time goes on, they accomplish bigger and better things.

Schwartz’s conclusion really hits the nail on the head: 

Setting intentionally out-of-reach goals reflects a cynical way of thinking about human nature and motivation. It’s driven by a belief that people are lazy, and by default won’t be ambitious or creative or try to do more than they think is possible. Goals, therefore, become a way to correct for that laziness. This way, even if people fail, their output can still be decent. 

There’s definitely some missed nuance here. What Schwartz is describing sounds more like “impossible” goals than “stretch” goals, which were always described to me as “possible but not probable”. 

The challenge in this definition is that it’s a judgment call, to begin with, and assumes perfect ability to predict the difficulty of a goal which is a fool’s errand in a complex world. So we can certainly make the case for the “art of goal-setting” but we can also question the value of the practice to begin with.

Why Setting Ambitious Goals Backfires [Schwartz]

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