Goal Setting: The Dark Side

By David Creelman

One of my very first published articles, about 20 years ago now, was about the wonders of goal setting. Goal setting is a very well researched topic. The leading research by Gary Latham and Edwin Locke boils down to the fact that setting a specific goal leads to better performance than asking someone to do their best.

You are probably quite familiar with goal setting, know all about S.M.A.R.T. goals, and perhaps even know about Latham’s advice to use developmental goals instead of outcome goals when a person is still learning how to do a task.

Goal setting is easy to understand, easy to implement and evidence-based. What more could we want in a management practice? The real issue seemed to be about doing goal setting well and doing it often—things we need to continually work on.

But there is another side to the story, sometimes, or maybe even quite often, goal setting can backfire.

The Dark Side of Goal Setting
Christopher Kayes, author of Destructive Goal Pursuit, argues that setting goals leads to destructive behaviour. His iconic example of this was the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest where eight people died, a story chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air. Kayes take on this was that having a clear, ambitious goal, led the climbers to take the foolish risks that lead to their death.

The Mount Everest story is just one anecdote but Kayes has others and it is not too hard to think of examples in our own companies where single-minded pursuit of a goal, such as a revenue target, led to terrible outcomes.

The mechanism that drives the dark side of goal setting is that goal setting is a simple tool used in a complex world. In a simple laboratory setting goal setting always wins; in the real world we are sometimes (usually?) best to be wary of putting too much emphasis on goals.

The Sad Side of Goal Setting
So there you have it. Goal setting is a simple, proven, powerful tool but one that can go terribly wrong. This is sad because we would love to have some certainties in the HR profession. It is exciting to give training on setting S.M.A.R.T. goals and trot out all the research showing that this technique works. It spoils the fun when we have to say “Oh, and goals may also lead you to an untimely death.”

We might think the answer is “Use goals but in moderation. Find a balance.” In fact, that probably is the answer, however there is a broader point I want to focus on. If we say “1” is always setting goals and “10” is never setting goals then the “find a balance” solution suggests there is a simple answer somewhere around “5”.

I want to stress that there is no simple answer at all. We need to constantly confront the demons that cavort around goal setting to find the right solution at that moment. It’s a matter of skill, experience, conversation, and self-awareness.

We can give managers a lot of great tips, frameworks and processes. However, we can never give them a formula. As great as goal setting is, we cannot use it as a solid anchor in the storm of uncertainty. Teaching the sad side of goal setting is a tougher story to tell than one that trumpets its successes; nevertheless, to be good management advisors we must continually remind ourselves that the way ahead is rarely straightforward, and be comfortable moving forward in such a world.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in the Americas, Asia and Europe. In 2015 he will be focused on helping companies understand HR analytics. He can be reached at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com.

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David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. He helps HR leaders to identify, understand and address important new issues in human capital management. His most recent book Lead the Work: Navigating a World Beyond Employment (co-authored with Boudreau and Jesuthasan) is on the future of work and has received plaudits from business leaders. David works closely with Dr. Wanda Wallace on leadership transitions in knowledge-driven industries. He also partners with Carnegie-Mellon’s Denise Rousseau to lead a community of practice of Fortune 500 companies on analytics and evidence-based management. He also won the Walker Award for his work with Andrew Lambert on board oversight of human capital. David has spoken about reporting on human capital at the World Bank Headquarters in Paris, worked with the Etisalat Academy in Dubai, and helped leaders from Japan’s Recruit Co. tour the US HR tech industry (Recruit bought Indeed.com). He is a long-term member of the Workforce Institute’s advisory board in Boston and regularly conducts research for the Tokyo-based Works Institute. Prior to his current role, David helped launch HR.com as Chief of Content and Research. Earlier still, he worked as a management consultant for the Hay Group in Toronto and Kuala Lumpur and taught an HR course at the University of Malaya. David began his career with corporate jobs in the resources and finance industries in Canada and the UK. He has an undergrad in Chemistry and Biochemistry and an MBA. He now lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife and daughter.

Latest posts by David Creelman (see all)

David Creelman

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. He helps HR leaders to identify, understand and address important new issues in human capital management.

His most recent book Lead the Work: Navigating a World Beyond Employment (co-authored with Boudreau and Jesuthasan) is on the future of work and has received plaudits from business leaders. David works closely with Dr. Wanda Wallace on leadership transitions in knowledge-driven industries. He also partners with Carnegie-Mellon’s Denise Rousseau to lead a community of practice of Fortune 500 companies on analytics and evidence-based management. He also won the Walker Award for his work with Andrew Lambert on board oversight of human capital.

David has spoken about reporting on human capital at the World Bank Headquarters in Paris, worked with the Etisalat Academy in Dubai, and helped leaders from Japan’s Recruit Co. tour the US HR tech industry (Recruit bought Indeed.com). He is a long-term member of the Workforce Institute’s advisory board in Boston and regularly conducts research for the Tokyo-based Works Institute.

Prior to his current role, David helped launch HR.com as Chief of Content and Research. Earlier still, he worked as a management consultant for the Hay Group in Toronto and Kuala Lumpur and taught an HR course at the University of Malaya. David began his career with corporate jobs in the resources and finance industries in Canada and the UK. He has an undergrad in Chemistry and Biochemistry and an MBA. He now lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife and daughter.

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