Why Personal Goal Setting Can Be Dangerous

While I am a personal advocate of goal setting, I’ve thought hard and deep about an instructive piece of research by Max Bazerman and colleagues
on goal setting that goes bad.  Although the research focuses on
the relationship between leaders and their organizations, the research
obviously applies to personal career development.

The study contains numerous examples of goals gone wild, and
includes overcharging by Sears mechanics, Enron’s commission program
for traders, and Ford’s small Pinto, a car that was found to have
dysfunctional engineering that caused it to ignite on collision. 

The research finds that performance goal setting is fairly easy
to implement, easy to measure, and easy to document successes.  But it
also can readily result in undesired results.  Indeed, good people,
people with the best of intentions, focus so much on a stretch goal
that they engage in excessive risk-taking, and on occasion, unethical

Although focus is always necessary for personal success, what the
research emphasizes is that when people focus on a specific stretch
goal, they often fail to perform other valued activities that are
needed by the organization.  So on occasion, the goal can do more harm
than good.

What was most intriguing to me were the recommendations regarding
goal setting.  Bazerman suggests that learning or mastery goals more
readily lead to better effects than performance goals.  He provides us
with an excellent analogy for thinking through our personal
goal-setting processes. 

Just as doctors prescribe drugs
selectively, mindful of interactions and adverse reactions, so too
should managers carefully prescribe goals.  To do so, managers must
consider. . . the complex interplay between goal setting and
organizational contexts, as well as the need for safeguards and

That conclusion applies just as readily to our own career goal setting as to organizational goals. 

One of the firms I’ve
consulted with for years mixes performance and learning goals for
yearly objectives.  We’ve found that though performance measures can be
straightforward, mastery and learning goals need more support.  The
organization is very good about helping in learning goals, but they
actually take more insight and commitment to implement.  Over the
long-term, however, the organizational leaders have also found that
learning goals are more useful for the development of the firm’s
business.  That applies to our own careers.  Sure, we need measurable
performance goals, but businesspeople who focus on mastery goals find
that employability is rarely a problem and that opportunities often
present themselves as a result of mastery-initiated successes.

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