Sacred Cows, or Goals Gone Wild

Personally, I love seeing sacred cows sacrificed. Maybe it’s that contrarian thinking helps learning. Maybe skepticism came with studying philosophy and doing strategy consulting.

Maybe I’m just a little bent. Whatever.

Let’s take goal-setting. That’s about as big a sacred cow as you get in business. Googling “goal setting” gets you 5.6 million hits.

Jack Welch praises it. Scottie Hamilton and Michael Phelps get cited as examples of it. Martial artists swear by it. Management by objectives is built around it.

I’m not sure there’s any more common theme in self-help and business success books. It’s just so, like, obvious. Goal-setting may be the secret behind the success of Motherhood and Apple Pie. I’m pretty sure it explains the Boy Scouts.

So–what an unexpected delight to find a balloon-pricking, mellow-harshing, skeptical piece of inquiry in, of all places, Harvard Business School.  (Actually, it’s in the HBS Working Knowledge series, which does a fine job of exploring quirky ideas. They’re just not usually so big as this one).  A little bonus: the smirky title, "Goals Gone Wild: the Systematic Side Effects of Over-prescribing Goals Setting."

The paper is summarized here and co-author Max Bazerman is interviewed here:

From the executive summary:

• The harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged.

• Goal setting harms organizations in systematic and predictable ways.

• The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.

• In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.

But surely, you say, this is a case of excess, of bad apples. Goals are not the problem, people who use goals badly are the problem. (You remember–guns don’t kill people, people kill people).

No, says Bazerman. When the adoption of goals so predictably and systematically produces negative results, it is fair to say it is goals themselves that are the problem. (Are you listening, NRA?)

Well, you might say, if goal-setting is so dangerous, how’d we get to use it so much and so deeply?

Says Bazerman:

It is easy to implement. It is easy to measure. It is easy to document successes. And in laboratory experiments, it has been shown to be extremely successful at improving the measured behavior. [we] simply argue that goals have gone wild in terms of their impact on other unmeasured outcomes. When we factor in the consistent findings that stretch and specific goals both narrow focus on a limited set of behaviors while increasing risk-taking and unethical behavior, their simple implementation can become a vice.

Bazerman and his co-authors are not saying goal-setting is bad per se; they’re not raving nut-jobs. They’re just asking a question that doesn’t get asked nearly often enough.

They have taken a sober, holistic look at one of the most pervasive, unchallenged, unexamined mantras of business—and brought some welcome fresh air to the issue.

Bravo.