Spring is a time of renewal and fresh starts. It’s also by springtime that most New Year’s resolutions have fizzled, so, chagrined by our failures yet inspired by the presence all around us of new beginnings, our thoughts turn once again to goal setting.
But perhaps we should proceed with caution. While setting specific, challenging goals has been shown to boost performance, some researchers and career success bloggers now suggest there’s a downside to setting goals. According to a 2009 study, goals are useful and necessary but widely “overprescribed,” causing unfortunate “side effects.”
Research in the past decade has shown that in some cases “organizational goal setting” — workplace performance targets — has been linked to “cognitive depletion” and unethical behavior, says Lisa Ordóñez, a management professor at the University of Arizona.
In many organizations, after employees meet their goals for a particular period, management “ratchets up” future performance targets, with unintended consequences, she explains.
“If you’re so focused on meeting a numerical goal, it’s like putting on blinders,” Ordóñez says.
Goal-driven employees can not only become less attuned to ethical considerations and likelier to take risks, but they can also “take their eye off other things that are important to the success of the organization,” she adds.
Her research looks at the undesired outcomes of organizational goal setting but applies to personal goals as well. Much has been written about setting specific, measurable goals with deadlines, but some areas call for a broader approach and “thinking in terms of a compass that guides you where you need to go, not a series of precise GPS targets you need to reach by specific times,” Ordóñez says.
The problem with goals is that “they constantly keep us focused on a future outcome,” says Emily Bennington, author of “Who Says It’s a Man’s World: The Girls’ Guide to Corporate Domination” (AMACOM, 2013). “When your ability to feel successful is wrapped in goals, you spend most of your time trying to be somewhere other than where you are right now. And even when you achieve your goals, then what? You just set more goals. The cycle is designed so you are never satisfied.”
In her book, Bennington lays out a “life roadmap” with less emphasis on goals and more on self-identified “virtues” that guide behavior and influence outcomes. She calls it a VIG list, short for virtues, intentions and goals. “Don’t anchor your happiness around goals, anchor them on virtues instead,” she writes. “These aren’t the things you want to achieve someday, but the qualities you want to embody right now, in this moment, and in every moment beyond.”
A VIG list includes virtues (some of Bennington’s are discipline, positivity and industry) alongside intentions – how you intend to live out your virtues (maintain a daily to-do list, inspirational reading each morning, minimize time wasters).
Spend 70 percent of your time on virtues and 30 percent in pursuit of specific goals, Bennington advises.
Leadership consultant Peter Bregman proposes a similar approach: Instead of identifying goals, consider identifying “areas of focus.”
“A goal defines an outcome you want to achieve, while an area of focus establishes activities you want to spend your time doing,” he says.
A sales goal, for example, might specify a revenue target while an area of focus in sales “might involve having lots of conversations with appropriate prospects,” says Bregman, author of “18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.” (Business Plus, 2012)
These aren’t mutually exclusive. You can have a goal and an area of focus, Bregman says, but at times it’s preferable and productive to concentrate on the latter without the former, as an area of focus “taps into your intrinsic motivation” and “offers no stimulus or incentive to cheat or take unnecessary risks.”
It’s the lack of intrinsic motivation that causes many plans to peter out and many goals to fail. Don’t overlook this component if you do decide this spring to set some goals or reinstate your New Year’s resolutions, advises Michael Hyatt in his “Intentional Leadership” blog.
“A clearly written goal is not enough. A carefully thought-out action plan isn’t, either,” he writes. “Don’t forget to list your internal motivations” — why the goal is important to you and what’s at stake personally.
Establishing the whys will help you find your way, writes Hyatt: “This is the difference-maker. It may be the one ingredient you need to go the distance.”