Goals: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

We live in a goal obsessed environment and at this time of the year, it’s especially apparent.

It seems like everyone is focused on goals in one way or another. For individuals, it’s time to make New Year’s Resolutions, set personal goals, and make plans for a productive year. For organizations and institutions, it’s time to focus on setting and implementing mission-critical goals, achieving financial targets, and ensuring success in the coming year.

Setting and working towards goals is a good thing, right? Well, the answer to that may be yes and no. When goals are carefully crafted with an understanding of goal setting principles, in an effective framework, with the appropriate leadership and management support and resources, they can be highly motivating, providing purpose and direction, yielding amazing results. But, there are also perils for the naïve or unwary so it’s very important to be alert to where goals can go wrong and well as how they lead to their intended results.

Goals that are very aggressive can put enormous pressure on individual employees and may produce unintended consequences including unethical behavior. When an organization has very challenging goals but lacks a clear framework for how the goals are to be accomplished, employees may interpret this as tacit approval for achieving the goals by any means necessary, including behavior that is unethical, putting the individual and the organization at risk. Establishing goals without a careful evaluation of the possible consequences may produce some surprises. For example, when goals are activity driven, usually because activities are easily measured, and there isn’t a clear causal relationship from the activities to the intended results, the surprise is that employees can meet the activity goals and still not produce the intended results. Sometimes, poorly crafted goals produce the opposite of the intended effect and serve to demotivate employees rather than motivating them. This might be found when some elements necessary to achieve the goals are outside of the employee’s control, the employee lacks the necessary skills, or doesn’t have access to the resources required for successful achievement of their goals.



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