When do goals support our growth and development? When do they get in the way? And how can we tell the difference?
In a post on self-coaching and goal-setting last July, I wrote that "goals encourage us to work harder and longer, and when they're difficult to achieve they push us even more"--a proposition backed up by decades of research, much of it by Edwin Locke of the University of Maryland and Gary Latham of the University of Toronto. But by no means are goals always a good thing--as Locke and Latham wrote in 2006 in New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory [PDF], at times it's more effective to focus on what we'll learn during the course of an activity than on any performance outcomes we're seeking to achieve. Further, goals actually contribute to lower performance when they're so daunting that we perceive them as "threats" rather than "challenges."
Recent research on goals highlights their complex impact on our behavior. In July Ayelet Fishbach of the Booth School of Business and Jinhee Choi of the Korea University School published When Thinking About Goals Undermines Goal Pursuit, which inspired Christian Jarrett's How Goals and Good Intentions Can Hold Us Back. Building on Fishbach and Choi's research, Jarrett urges us to be mindful of the unintended consequences of goal-setting:
Focusing on goals fires up your intentions to engage in the activities that will help you achieve those goals. But there's a major downside. Stay focused on your goals and you spoil your experience of the activities you'll need to pursue. In turn, that makes it far more likely that you'll drop out early and fail to achieve the very goals that you're so focused on.
Jarrett goes on to discuss Fishbach and Choi's paper at length and concludes:
[T]he lessons from this research seem clear. By all means visualize your goals to help get yourself started in the first place, but once you're underway, try to let your long-term mission fade a little into the background. Revel in the process and you're more likely to make it to the finishing line...
[Further,] once our projects are underway, not only should we beware choosing to stay too focused on our goals, we must also guard against the detrimental effect of outside reminders.
In October the New York Times' Alina Tugend interviewed a number of researchers, including Gary Latham, for an article titled Experts' Advice to the Goal-Oriented: Don't Overdo It:
It’s not that goals are bad, [Latham] said, but that problems arise when the values that underlie them and the process to achieve them are skewed.
Tugend also talked with the University of Arizona's Lisa Ordóñez, who in 2009 co-authored Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting, in which a medical metaphor is used to emphasize the potency of goals' influence and their undesirable side effects:
[W]e argue that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects nongoal areas, distorted risk preferences, a rise in unethical behavior, inhibited learning, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision. We offer a warning label to accompany the practice of setting goals.
Despite these concerns, in Tugend's article Ordóñez takes the same position as Latham:
"It's not that goals are bad," said Professor Ordóñez... "We’re just saying be careful." [Emphasis mine]
It's critical that we integrate the findings of Fishbach, Choi, Ordóñez and their colleagues into our understanding of goals and modify their use accordingly. But I'm concerned that a misreading of this research is leading us to throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon goals entirely.
In addition to Christian Jarrett's essay noted above, in 2010 Zen Habits' Leo Babauta proclaimed that the best goal is no goal, and this month he took the "Pro" position in a debate with Tim Ferriss on whether goals suck. Just a few days ago Peter Bregman urged his readers at HBR.org to Consider Not Setting Goals in 2013, a post in which he cites the "Goals Gone Wild" paper and Tugend's NYT article. And just a few hours ago, Babauta tweeted that "Harvard Business Review adopts my no-goals philosophy," with a link to Bregman's post.
Jarrett, Babauta and Bregman all make excellent, nuanced points about the complexity of goals and their unintended consequences--but their headlines (which may not have been written by them, of course) paint a much more simplistic picture, and reductive comments like Babauta's tweet only get amplified in our 140-character world. (It's been re-tweeted or favorited 45 times already as I write this.)
To be clear, I've been heavily influenced by the research on goals' undesirable side effects, and I've altered how I use them in my personal life and in my coaching practice as a result. I continue to find goals a helpful source of motivation when getting started, but I also watch carefully for signs of their counter-productivity. I've come to think of a goal as a powerful tow rope--it can jumpstart a stalled effort and give me a boost, but it can also drag me off course or even out of control. So it's essential to hold on to it lightly and let go of it readily.
Thanks to my colleague Collins Dobbs for the pointer to Bregman's post.
Photo by Gail Foss. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.