Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Dark Side of Goal-Setting

A recent article concluding a summary of studies on goal-setting stated, “In addition to motivating constructive behavior, goal setting--especially when it involves rewards--can motivate unethical behavior when people fall short of the goals they set or are set for them.”[1]
The Prevalence of Goal-Setting

When we think about it, goal-setting seems fundamental to performance and measurement of that performance in our world--a healthy response to the action we make and take; hardly any part of the world is immune from goals. Not even the ministry or the Vatican is immune, though they might be somewhat less relevant to some, viz, monasterial orders. Goal-setting is, however, ostensibly secular in its philosophy and objective.

But, the real issue here is the misuse of goal-setting, as surely goal-setting is a wisdom construct: at its purest, it’s the aiming for, and monitoring of, the truthful best. Agencies and persons who set goals (and that would be all of us) must then understand the potential impact goal-setting has on the flawed human psyche, and how it can easily manipulate the human condition toward unethical deeds and ends.

So Close, But Yet So Far…

The temptation to skimp ethically on safety and other requirements in the achievement of goals is particularly marked right as the goal is about to be reached.

Recently I got a call from my daughter to pick her up early from work; I hadn’t allowed for this, and I was going to struggle to make it--my goal of picking her up on time was at jeopardy. I found myself suddenly a little more foot-leaden as I drove to pick her up.

I took what risk I thought I could get away with, until I realised my folly. (We very quickly forget how easily we are duped at times, as we are motivated by the goal in ignorant bliss.) Yet, I should’ve just been honest and told her I’d be five minutes late (re-setting the goal to ensure it was achievable). Had I been further away (say thirty minutes) I wouldn’t have even attempted to take risks--I’d have just been straight about it. But, I was tantalizingly close to achieving my objective; so close I was prepared to entertain ‘bending’ the road rules!

An example from the business world would be meeting a lost time injury frequency rate target by bringing injured workers into work to do ‘light duties.’ A church example might be goals on baptisms or attendance--the tried and tested ‘numbers’ game--where the books are ‘cooked’ to show favourable growth.

Both in the secular and ministry worlds, this behaviour is a misrepresentation of the truth.

The rewards for achieving goals can be both tangible and intangible. Tangible rewards are easy enough to represent i.e. bonuses, trinkets and other commodities, but the intangible rewards run a lot deeper to things like, positive self-evaluation and self-satisfaction, not to mention the incurred ‘psychological costs’ of unmet goals.

The Role of Accountability in Performance Measurement

People will also have a greater propensity to misreport or misrepresent their actual performance if there is a lack of accountability. As I drove to pick up my daughter, I thought about the consequences morally (toward hypocrisy) and the chances of a speeding ticket; both of these issues kept me accountable. Yet, there are many times in life when we don’t have that level of supervision, and we can easily justify a little bending of the rules to get what we want.

It appears that if we want to set people up to succeed (in any environment, whether it’s secular business or church ministry) we ought to provide impetus for people to either simply ‘try their best,’ measuring the process and not so much the outcome, or we should ensure there are streams of solid, reliable accountability--or we can expect people to be tempted and, at least in some cases, overcome by the temptations to cheat and claim as met, unmet goals.

Perhaps it’s the application of both: ‘Try your best’ cultures where we are rewarded similarly whether goals are met or not AND sufficient accountability (without stifling performance and hurting morale).

Seemingly either one needs to be strongly present in the matter of goal-setting.

Copyright © 2009, S. J. Wickham. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

[1] Knowledge@Wharton – Operations Management, Goal setting and Cheating: Why They Often Go Together in the Workplace (July 28, 2004) Retrieved April 28, 2009. Available online at Source:


Steve B said...

Hi Steve

After all the endless messages that have been given on this type of subject, do you think it is possible you could unpack this a bit more?

I would love to see what you come up with. Many thanks

Penny said...

I believe totally in setting goals in life, as I am very goal orient. Successfully achieving goals in life builds self confidence, self esteem and a successful mindset. The only dark side of goal setting is not setting goals. At Interactivity that promotes successful pursuit of life goals.

S.J. Wickham said...

Yes, I think goal-setting is critical to success in life. But, we do need to weigh goals and performance up in balance -- the goals serve us, not the other way around... thanks Steve and Penny.