Goal-setting prescriptions

imageA Harvard Business Review article, Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, suggests that improper goal-setting, like improper use of prescription drugs, can be hazardous to a project's health. The article reviews research about goal-setting and its systematic side effects, and concludes that organizations should apply goals sparingly and carefully, just as medications are used in a controlled way to treat disease. The article provides the ‘warning label’ depicted here to reinforce the risks of goal-setting on an organization's performance over time.

The article offers a series of quality checks that should be considered when a set of goals are being established for a broad community:

  1. Are goals too specific?
  2. Are goals too challenging?
  3. Are goals negotiated properly?
  4. Is the time horizon for goals appropriate?
  5. Might goals adversely impact risk taking?
  6. Might goals motivate unethical behavior?
  7. Are goals tailored fairly to individual abilities and circumstances?
  8. Will goals influence organizational culture?
  9. Will the intrinsic motivations of individuals be adversely affected by goal-setting?
  10. Are performance or learning goals most appropriate to meet the ultimate goals of the organization?

The article also highlights additional guidance and pitfalls that should also be taken account of during this process:

  • Narrow goals blind people to important aspects of a problem. Goals should be sufficiently comprehensive to include all of the critical components for firm success (e.g., quantity and quality).
  • The downstream implications of not meeting goals need to be considered. How will individual employees and outcomes be evaluated? Will failure harm motivation? Are skills and training provided to enable employees to reach goals?
  • People will become more committed to goals they help to set, but also may be tempted to set easy to reach goals.
  • Short-term efforts to reach a goal may harm investment in long-term outcomes.
  • The levels of risk associated with pursuit of goals should be articulated and mitigated.
  • Goals narrow focus, so employees are less likely to recognize ethical issues. Abstract goals can encourage cheating, induce employees to rationalize their behaviors, and can corrupt organizational cultures. Have appropriate safeguards been put in place to protect against these risks?
  • Goals should be reinforced within a well understood framework, but still account for individual variation.
  • If cooperation is essential, team-based goals should be set rather than individual goals
  • In complex, changing environment, learning goals may be more effective.

With the added awareness of these pitfalls, and consideration of these issues, goals can still serve an important means of communications. But without such changes, goal setting will be less likely to become a target of cynicism from team members.

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