Stumbled upon an interesting 10-year old paper by Lisa D. Ordóñez et al.
Their core thesis (supported by academic references and case studies) is that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. Rather than advocate for getting rid of goals altogether, they use a medical metaphor to convey their recommendation and suggest that the practice of goals setting should not be used as a benign, “over-the-counter” treatment for motivation (the way it’s used today), but rather as a “prescription-strength medication” that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.
They group the systemic “side effects” of goals into the following categories:
- Goals that are too specific: narrow goals lead to narrow focus often at the expense of the “big picture” and other important non-goal objectives. The specificity can also lead to an abundance of goals, which in turn lead to overwhelm and a focus on a single goal as a coping strategy. Finally, specificity around the time horizon increases the likelihood of getting it wrong and making the goal either too hard or too easy to have the desired effect on motivation.
- Goals are too challenging: overly challenging goal often leads to counter-productive behavior in an effort to achieve the goal by all means necessary — from excessing risk-taking, through unethical behavior, to dissatisfaction and the negative psychological consequences of failing to achieve the goal.
- Friction with learning and cooperation: (performance) goals can create a dynamic where the stakes are too high to engage in activities that promote learning: from exploring different ways to achieve the task, through setting time aside for reflection to “playing it safe” in fear of making mistakes. Furthermore, individual goals can support and reinforce a culture of competition and individualistic focus.
- Crowding-out of intrinsic motivation by the extrinsic goal
- In a multi-person context (read: organizations) a calibration challenge also emerges: using the same goal for different people ignores their individual capabilities, and will result in different outcomes on motivation and in turn, performance. Yet idiosyncratic/personalized goal-setting is not without its challenges either, especially around managing perceptions of unfairness.
The authors advocate the use of goals in the narrow context outlined by King and Burton (2003):
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.
Lastly, they offer a set of reflection questions for people who consider the use of goal-setting in a particular setting to determine whether goal-setting can be effective in that setting and mitigate the side-effects to the best of their abilities:
- Are the goals too specific? Narrow goals can blind people to important aspects of a problem. Be sure that goals are comprehensive and include all of the critical components for firm success (e.g., quantity and quality).
- Are the goals too challenging? What will happen if goals are not met? How will individual employees and outcomes be evaluated? Will failure harm motivation and self-efficacy? Provide skills and training to enable employees to reach goals. Avoid harsh punishment for failure to reach a goal.
- Who sets the goals? People will become more committed to goals they help to set. At the same time, people may be tempted to set easy to reach goals.
- Is the time horizon appropriate? Be sure that short-term efforts to reach a goal do not harm investment in long-term outcomes.
- How might goals influence risk-taking? Be sure to articulate acceptable levels of risk.
- How might goals motivate unethical behavior? Goals narrow focus, such that employees may be less likely to recognize ethical issues. Goals also induce employees to rationalize their unethical behavior and can corrupt organizational cultures. Multiple safeguards may be necessary to ensure ethical behavior while attaining goals (e.g., leaders as exemplars of ethical behavior, making the costs of cheating far greater than the benefit, strong oversight).
- Can goals be idiosyncratically tailored for individual abilities and circumstances while preserving fairness? Strive to set goals that use common standards and account for individual variation.
- How will goals influence organizational culture? If cooperation is essential, consider setting team-based rather than individual goals.
- Are individuals intrinsically motivated? Assess intrinsic motivation and recognize that goals can curtail intrinsic motivation.
- Consider the ultimate goals of the organization and what type of goal (performance or learning) is most appropriate? In complex, changing environments learning goals may be more effective.