Goals Gone Wild

As we begin 2010, many organizations are in the process of
evaluating employees based on goal achievement and working
with employees to set new goals.

Research has shown that compared to vague or easy goals,
goals that are specific and challenging actually boost
performance.  But can employees become so focused on goal
attainment that other aspects of their jobs slide or they
make decisions that have nasty ethical consequences?

HR CONTRARIAN POINTER: Goal setting can do more harm than
good if it concentrates on ends over means and if it is
not monitored closely by management.

If you are in the process of establishing goals for 2010,
I strongly recommend reading the Harvard Business School
(HBS) working paper titled, “Goals Gone Wild: The
Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,”
which is a free download at the link below:

This paper comments on some of the more famous disasters
of overemphasis on goals such as the overcharging of
customers at Sears Auto Centers, the Ford Pinto gas tank,
Enron, and it even offers a logical explanation related to
misguided goals and why New Yorkers can’t ever find a cab
on a rainy day.

The paper points out many of the negative side effects
associated with goal setting such as a narrow focus that
neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior,
distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational
culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.

Despite these negative consequences, this HBS paper is not
advocating elimination of goals.  It is recommending a
selective and cautions approach to goals.  The paper draws
an analogy between the process of goal setting and the
process by which a doctor prescribes medication for a
patient and then monitors the patient for adverse

Finally, page 26 of the paper offers a “Warning Label”
with 10 cautions for managers to consider when setting

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