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.


9 replies
  1. James A. Boyd
    James A. Boyd says:

    Hi Charles,

    I am solidly behind you 99% of the time, but you have gored my ox on this one.  Bazerman’s reasonong is as phony as a three -dollr bill. 

    "When the adoption of goals so predictably and systematically produces negativ results, it is fair to say it is goals themselves that are the problem"

    This is equivalent to saying, Because there is oxygen in the air grass is always green.  No, grass is not always green  Polutants or fungus or grubs or whatever can turn grass brown or yellow. It is not always nice beautiful green.  But, that is not due to an absence of air.

    Bazerman’s reasoning is circutious.  He assumes the result from the premise.

    I will agree that goals can be evil, moral destroying, genuine negative influences.  But, as you suggested ,that is always the result of (1) improper goals, (2)   bad supervision, (3) weak leadership, (4) missing trust, (5) pick a hundren other reasons.  Good leaders match goals to core values – imutable, etched in steel ethical values – and lead the folks in achievingn those goals.  That is hard work; being a good leader is hard.  Good leaders create good goals and achieve good results without any of the risk-taking and unethical behavior that Bazerman alludes to in his paper.

    Thaks for letting me vent.

    Jim Boyd.

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Great rant.  Good passion linked to good logic.  Thank you.

    First, let’s make sure your disagreement is really with Bazerman, and not with me.  The words you focused on were my summary of his views, not a quote from Bazerman.  Here’s from the Bazerman interview directly:

    Q: Are goals by themselves a problem, or is it the way we use them?

    A: When we can so easily predict the dysfunctional behavior that will ensue, I would argue that it is the goals themselves. Far too often, people want to blame the individual. But when organizations and governments create dysfunctional systems that can be predicted to lead to bad behaviors, I see the problem starting with the dysfunctional system. And I see the creating of optimal systems as a key leadership function.

    As I look at this again now, it strikes me that his last line above (italics mine) is very much what you say in "Good leaders match goals to core values – immutable, etched in steel ethical values – and lead the folks in achieving those goals." 

    If you agree, with that quote, then I perhaps owe you and Bazerman an apology for mis-summarizing his comments. 

    On the other hand,  you might still disagree with him.  He does take a pretty strong stand on the issue. 

    If you have the energy, I’d love to hear your take on it.  You’ve clearly got some passion, some knowledge, and think clearly.  Might you take some time to click through to read his interview, and let us know your reaction to his thoughts, without me in the middle to confuse things?

    I know I’d find it interesting.


  3. R Everett
    R Everett says:

    Charlie – your clarification was needed: your initial summary leaned toward sensationalizing your point rather than making it succinct. So, now that you’ve made the clarifying statement, let me agree with you and the authors that a flawed system that is followed without regular reflection or examination will produce flawed results. And research shows that what gets measured changes. If a goal is set, the mind finds a way to achieve it. Therefore the challenge is this: leaders must make certain that what they ask people to achieve (the goal) is in harmony with ethics and values as well. As a Leader and consultant, I constantly ask, "Are we rewarding the right things?" Without that assessment, the pitfall is to celebrate victories without examining the effect of the success.

    Here’s an example: a call center provides rewards for contacts per day. The result? A race to make as many contacts as possible per day. The ripple effect? Callers who hesitated or wanted more information before agreeing to an appointment were cut off. I listened to many of these calls and via IM frequently told operators to wait before from jumping off the call until they asked one more question; "How else may I help you today?" (If you listen carefully, many customer services centers, the good ones, use this. The best ask it repeatedly until the customer says, "Nothing more.") The result was an increase in appointments even thought the number of contacts dropped a bit. Of course the goal was appointments, not contacts. Looking further up the chain, the ultimate goal was appointments with people who were likely to keep them. One more stop up and the next goal was appointments with people who valued what was given in the intial contact. Moves to incentivise that meant the appointment makers had to significantly improve their ability to connect, sincerely, with every caller. The ripple effect of that? An initial impression of the organization that it offered value without an expectation of reciprocation.

    Read "Meatball Sundae" to get more on that concept.


  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Thanks Rebecca for the very thoughtful comments.

    I think the call center example you provide is an excellent one.  I suspect we’d all agree the progression of higher-level goals and ripple effects that you describe is positive, good, desirable–the way it should be.

    But as your own rendition of the example points out, words get abused in practice.  You say, "of course the goal was appointments, not contacts…the ultimate goal was appointments with people who were likely to keep them…the next goal was appointments with people who valued what was given in the intial contact."

    I don’t disagree with a word you say, but in the daily world, the use of the word "goal" rarely ascends to the second level you cite, much less further.  And even less frequently is the higher meaning of the word (the ‘ultimate, ultimate goal’) shared with those who actually are left to execute on it.  It gets translated into behavioral language long before, in terms of skills acquisitions and scripts and quantifiable outcomes. 

    I love your final statement, though you don’t call it a ‘goal’: "An initial impression of the organization that it offered value without an expectation of reciprocation."

    What if that were described as the goal?  Full stop: to offer value without an expectation of reciprocation?  And share it with the people working the phones, deeply, so they get it.  If you look at it that way, then all the lower-level "goals" are byproducts–not goals, but outcomes, side-effects, spinoff results.

    I can’t speak for Bazerman here, but I what attracted me so much to his article was this notion that we routinely use the word "goal" to describe only that first-level "contacts per day" thing.  We measure it, and reward it, and generally leave it at that.  And we have used the term for so long that that is what it has come to mean nothing more than the front end of a rats-and-cheese model of human behavior.

    It’s like "sell."  You can rail all you want about how "selling" is actually a good, noble thing (which I believe, by the way), but a very big chunk of people in the world simply see it as evil.  The answer is not to fight the language, but to use some other language so they can hear the intent.  I fear "goal" may have been tarred with the same weight of social custom.

    What you describe is very right (and I ditto you about reading Seth Godin).  But what most of the world hears in "goals" is "gimme a target, tell me how much I make if I hit it, and gimme a script to get going." 

    I’d be curious to hear more about the language you used with management , and with the call center operators, when you described the need to "connect, sincerely."  Did you call that a "goal," or did you use other words?  Did you describe it as a "means to a goal?"  Did you say things like "in order to reach your goals…"  (And did anyone ask you how to measure and incent sincerity as a goal?  I hope not!).

    You can tell by my rambling I’m still trying to sort this out for myself as well. Thanks Rebecca for a stimulating comment.

  5. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    At the risk of belaboring a subject, here is a link to an amusing story of how goals get lost in translation, called "Gimme a 10."

    I think this is from a Bain consultant, or in any case it’s someone who works on NPS, or Net Promoter Score, a very good idea developed by Fred Reichheld at Bain & Co.

    The story is about a garden variety failure at an Embassy Suites to get a slow toilet leak fixed in a guest room for over a week. When the author finally questions a desk clerk about the meaning of her lapel button, she replies:

    "Oh. We wear these because you’re going to get a survey from Hilton, and we are supposed to ask you for a 10 on that survey," she replied innocently.
    "Hmm. Why would you ask me for a 10, rather than earning a 10?"
    "That’s a good point," she said. "I didn’t really think of that. We’re just supposed to tell all the guests that we want a 10 on the survey."

    I recall a similar conversation with a Verizon CSR, who finished by asking, "May I say I offered you excellent customer service today?"

    I said, "No, because I still have the same problem. You were nice and all, but it’s apparently not your problem, so you couldn’t fix it, so you didn’t offer me any service today. So, no."

    He responded with chagrin, "But, my bonus depends on this! It wasn’t my fault!"

    When employees of a company are encouraged by the system to beg from and to guilt-trip the customers, something has gone quite wrong.

    Of course, it would seem these are both cases of bad management of a goal. Unfortunately, this kind of bad management is very common. It happens with depressing frequency with hotel companies, mobile phone companies, transport companies. They massively confuse the measure with the thing being measured. They confuse the "goal" with the purpose the goal is supposed to further.

    After some point, I find it no longer useful to say this is "bad management," even if that’s true in a certain context. It’s simply easier and more colloquially accurate to say "this goals thing ain’t working." At least, not without context.

    And while it’s desirable to communicate goals in the context of a bigger picture, that is just not likely to happen very soon, given all the emphasis modern business "best practices" places on metrics-as-panacea.

    There is this huge desire to measure and quantify everything so we can design process and incentives. This metrics mania is one of the reasons Bazerman cites for the ubiquity of goals, even when they are causing rather than solving problems–the seductive belief that if we just get the measure right, everything will take care of itself.

    The measurement mania feeds the desire for goals, the goals get set out there simplistically without context, and front line supervisors in the major companies in the US end up mindlessly begging for measurements–unconnected to the real behaviors the goals and data were intended to drive.

    One more example: a post over at Simple Justice Blog, talking about the stultifying effect on law school professors and legal education of the relentless pursuit of, what else, ratings goals to indicate the quality of legal education.

    Are goals mishandled? Certainly. But the widespread demand to use them, uncoupled from good handling, is arguably part of the problem too.



  6. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi, Charlie,


    An interesting discussion.


    Some thoughts:


    For me the crux of the issue is contained in your Bain example, "Oh. We wear these because you’re going to get a survey from Hilton, and we are supposed to ask you for a 10 on that survey," she replied innocently…."Hmm. Why would you ask me for a 10, rather than earning a 10?" "That’s a good point," she said. "I didn’t really think of that. We’re just supposed to tell all the guests that we want a 10 on the survey” and “I really didn’t think.”


    My take is this is where the rubber fails to meet the road. Not "thinking" and not "doing".


    And the Verizon conversation: “May I say I offered you excellent customer service today?” (me: the fogginess of what “offered” means), and “But, my bonus depends on this! It wasn’t my fault!" (me: not taking responsibility, and choosing to play the victim).


    What I suggest is that (1) we throw out the word “goal” and replace it with “choice”, asking each employee to craft their "choices" (how to do, be and have) they feel would make them goods citizens of the organization. “Choice” is more personal,  empowering, internally motivating and fosters “ownership”, responsibility and accountability; (2) I would then ask each employee to state their commitment to honoring the choices they make and (3) indicate, specifically in an operational way, what commitment looks like in (a) thought-how they will think about what they say they’re going to do (b) public voice-what they actually say to customers and clients and why, and (c) action, what they actually do. (Leadership should support folks to craft their language so their choices and commitments(1) are measurable and observable, (2) are related to their team’s or organization’s values, mission and vision and (3) exhibit an alignment between what an employee thinks, says and does.


    If this process is understood, taught and integrated by an employee, then, perhaps an employee might not say (or even think) something like, “It’s not my fault”, as it’s not in alignment with one of the “choices” the employee made (in order to be a good citizen of the company) to, for example, “do what is necessary to (fill in the blank) to earn a 10”.


    Or, the employee, having chosen to “only ask for a customer’s or client’s positive feedback” if I have “found a solution (a "choice" as defined by the company and the employee together” as there is no alignment between what the employee thinks, says and does.


    For me, this is the “good handling” you mention.  By making choices, and consciously, proactively and self-reflectively focusing on the positive alignment between what the employee thinks, says and does, the “earning” of the 10 becomes more tangible. There would be less of a disconnect between “thinking” I earned a 10 and actually earning a 10.  "Thinking" doesn’t do it. 


    By choosing (not knee-jerk reacting) to ask a customer if I earned a 10, knowing that I have consciously made this a “choice” and knowing what kind of (not only) thinking, (but) saying and doing will honestly, sincerely, and self-responsibly earn me that 10 might clear up some of my confusion around goals, playing the victim, asking for what I don’t deserve or blaming.


    I may be way off here, but in my work with clients, we never use the word goal. We use choice. It does make a difference when there is a conscious alignment between how I think about, how I talk about, how I feel about and how I act on my choices and I know what self-responsibility and accountability feel like and look like – in my mind and well as in my deeds.

  7. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie, I managed to miss the discussion on this post until today, and your comment from March 7 is too good to lose.

    I hope you’ll consider publishing it as a post for all the people like me who may have missed it.

  8. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    As someone who’s worked in a call center and not just consulted about one or managed one, let me note that this:

    ‘"And the Verizon conversation: “May I say I offered you excellent customer service today?” (me: the fogginess of what “offered” means), and “But, my bonus depends on this! It wasn’t my fault!" (me: not taking responsibility, and choosing to play the victim)."


    …doesn’t strike me as "not taking responsbility".  Or, rather, it probably isn’t.  See, the way call centers are set up, the rules often prohibit the CSR from solving your problem.  He or she isn’t allowed to.  It is against the rules.  Even when it isn’t against the rules, it is actively discouraged by metrics such as "time per customer" which you have to meet.  Solving clients problems is not your job, getting them off the phone as fast as possible while saying the right things so you can’t be dinged by an auditor listening in, is your job.

    Blaming low level employees for implementing policies they have no control over isn’t useful.  In most cases it really /isn’t/ their fault.  Don’t even blame their managers, blame the executives who think of Customer Service as a cost center and who think that they have to micromanage stats like call time and who deskill jobs by taking away all functional authority from line staff so they can’t make the decisions required to fix anything but cookie-cutter problems.

  9. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    Also, having read the interview, I’d have to say that the strong case is… strong.  He says that:

    1) Stretch goals lead to not helping others on the team

    2) lead to unethical behaviour to reach the goal

    This matches my own observations inside corporations.  It’s very easy to get the behaviour you reward — people will do WHATEVER it takes to meet goals.  But as you do so, everything else suffers.  This is not isolated in my experience, it happens so regularly that I simply expect it.  As he notes, stretch goals are particularly bad, because by definition they’re hard to achieve and doing so usually requires sacrificing something.


    The problem is that doing most jobs requires so many different goals to be achieved that whatever you choose as your few goals, you leave other things out that are important, and they get short shrift.


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