Is Goal Setting Worth the Risk?

Can goal setting ever be bad for your organization?

Let’s remind ourselves of the obvious. In academia, nearly every idea goes through three phases. The initial phase is that the new-fangled thing on offer is the best one since sliced bread and that if you know your onions, then you’ll make a salad. Everyone else is doing it and you should, too.

The second phase is characterized by criticism. It asks, “How could you have been so gullible to believe all that tommyrot about sliced bread? Don’t you know an onion when you see one? This isn’t one.”

When a sufficient number of people have abandoned Phase One and adopted Phase Two, then someone else comes along with Phase Three. Here they make some attempt to redeem the good in both Phases One and Two while discarding what they perceive as the bad. Their argument is that you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath-water.



Where do you think the idea of setting goals falls?

Unquestionably, it has been embraced by the majority of organizations which means that it is fully within Phase One.

You’re probably thinking to yourself, too, that it’s self-evident that goals ought to be set. If you aim for nothing, then you’re guaranteed to hit it, or so the saying goes.

Several years ago, scholars began to question the veracity of Phase One. They identified what could be called the negative side effects that can come from goal-setting. Among others, they pointed to the tendencies towards unethical behaviour and increased risk-taking. And rather than waiting for others to jump onto the inevitable Phase Two bandwagon, they immediately made a case for Phase Three.

The problem, as they saw it, was that goal-setting had become too prescriptive.

Maybe you’ve noticed in your own life. You’ve found that no matter how much effort you’ve put into keeping your New Year’s resolutions, life has gotten in the way. It seems that mitigating circumstances run your day; not the things that are the most important.

When you try to build in flexibility, then your goals lose specificity. Like those who go into a room and then can’t remember why, you lost track of what were originally aiming for.


Unethical behaviour

In organizations, where goals are often set by one group and achieved by another (policy-administration dichotomy), employees can experience undue managerial pressures to reach them. This can lead to unethical behaviour. The problem, however, is that there is no agreement as to what this means. That’s because there’s no objective standard – no code of rules – to which everyone believes they should adhere.

Some organizations have a handbook, but it’s impossible to legislate for every eventuality; still more difficult to enforce. On top of that, many senior executives believe that the rules don’t apply to them.

Multiple standards lie at the heart of unethical behaviour. What is good for the goose is good for the gander and has to be. You as a leader or manager can’t really expect to do one thing while expecting others to do the opposite. It must be plain as a pikestaff that what is ethical for you is ethical for everyone else, right?

That means that when employees see you behave dishonestly in order to achieve your goals, they take that as carte blanche to follow your example. You’re the leader, remember? You do want them to follow you, right?

How might goal setting contribute to unethical behaviour?


Unsafe working practices

How are production goals achieved in your organization? Do you ignore safety standards to achieve them? Do you overlook unsafe working practices because it would mean that it would take longer to complete the work?

What policies come into force when employees get sick?

Whether you like it or not, illness is something that occurs.

Here’s a statistic that ought to get your attention: 4,000 people die every year in the UK from flu.

How do people catch it? By being around others who have it. The virus is spread through coughing and sneezing. Someone with a mild case can give it to someone else who later develops a severe case – one that can kill.


Why do sick people come to work?

Maybe your company penalizes everyone on a shift by withholding their overtime bonus if anyone takes more than two sick days within a fixed period of time. This policy sends many messages to workers.

It tells them that you don’t trust them. This is not too smart. If you know that someone feels that way about you, then you will know in your heart that you can’t trust him or her. Why? Because it’s likely that they practice the very behaviour that they suspect you of. It’s a classic case of being able to see a fault in someone else, but missing the same fault in yourself.

So when you don’t feel that you’re trusted, you instead believe that you’ll have to cover your own back because no one else will. That, too, means that you won’t be able to focus entirely on your job because “big brother” is watching.

It also tells your employees that unless they’re dead or dying they had better show up. This puts not only them, but their colleagues and the company itself at risk.

What are the symptoms of flu? It may be only a bit of malaise, a bit of coughing or sneezing. On the other hand, it could include high fever and dizziness. You do not want people this sick working around machinery. Even if they obtain medication from a doctor, it will only mitigate the symptoms. Recovery from flu requires bed rest and takes time – more than a couple of days.

This is something you have to face. You can ill afford for one of your workers to become seriously injured because of some stupid organizational policy.

So what if a few people take advantage of you? They will be few and far between. In any case, the five and a bit weeks of holiday that the law gives them covers excessive absence. When they run out of days, they’ll stop being paid; and sick pay is paltry.

There’s another thing to think about. When people are under constant pressure to achieve goals, there’s no time for reflection.

You probably know yourself that your greatest insights come when you can relax. If your employees are working flat-out, non-stop, then they could simply become experts at repeating the same mistakes over and over; but you’ll never find out because your workforce is constantly driving itself just to keep up.


Pursuit of unwinnable odds

Some people will take unnecessary risks with the company’s money in order to achieve organizational goals.

It can easily happen. All it takes is one bad deal. It’s akin to gambling. Each time, a little more is wagered.

It’s been a few years now, but you should remember that Nick Leeson brought down the 233-year-old Barings Bank with £827 million in losses by himself.

You do not want your employees to be under such pressure from you to reach your goals that they will bet the success of the company on unwinnable odds. There’s no telling what the eventual outcome will be.


Team disintegration

Goals can also destroy teams. That’s because individuals under pressure naturally look for weaknesses – those things that are holding them back. Invariably, this will include other team members because then everyone has a mix of skills. Playing to your strengths means compensating for someone else’s weaknesses. If those weaknesses are perceived as a threat to the achievement of personal goals, then those individuals could be side-lined, destroying the team itself.


What you can do about it

These are only a few of the ways in which goal setting can cause problems in your organization. However, the issue really isn’t about whether you set goals, but how you achieve them.


What approach should you use?

The answer is that it should be non-prescriptive.

What that means is that you focus on the outcome rather than the process.

Not all companies are created equally, and so even this approach cannot be prescriptive; however, the aim should always be to decentralize the achievement of any goals as much as is possible down to the level of the worker. In other words, you need to give your employees the freedom to accomplish the work in their way. When you do that, then you’re saying in effect, “Here’s the goal. Figure out how to achieve it.” On the other hand, when you penalize people because they are sick, for example, you’re saying that the process is as important as the outcome; and the truth is that it isn’t.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Provided the quality is maintained and deadlines are met, it shouldn’t matter how it’s done.

Naturally there will be managers who disagree; however, this is a costly opinion to hold. Such organizations are more likely to experience low morale and mistrust, lower productivity, and in a strong economy, higher employee turnover.

There’s no such thing as a risk-free existence. To choose to avoid one risk is to opt for another. You have to decide which it will be.



If you would like to improve how your organisation sets and works with goals, please contact us here

Leave a comment...

If you found value in this blog you might also be interested in one or more of these…

How to Make Learning Habit Forming

Did you make a New Year Resolution recently? Every year, millions of people do. Their resolve or intention is to do something differently because they want to get a better outcome; want to know why many don’t make it?

There is No Substitute for Trust

The organizational change model is well known. It follows an equally well-known model: the one for making decisions.