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Jan 9, 2018

Set One Goal for the New Year: No Goals

What’s on your to-do list for the new year? Many of us start the year by setting goals for ourselves, our departments, our staff. It’s the way we’ve been coached to measure success and to show results.

But what if our goals are actually keeping us from success, as some researchers are starting to think?

Goal critics say that they can lead to an overly narrow focus, unethical behavior, dump of work on other employees, and reduced intrinsic motivation. They are often based on what people think they should want rather than what they do want. One everyday example is the way we seek to address the obesity epidemic - goals that require behavior change are often actively resisted. Beyond that, recent history contains several examples of narrow goals gone wrong, from the Ford Pinto to the fall of Enron.

On the other hand, goals can also become too internalized, and their completion pushes other priorities out of the spotlight. Or worse, if the goals aren’t realized, they can lead to disappointment and feelings of failure. One researcher found that visualization can trick your brain into thinking the work has already been done.

If not goals, what then?

Focus on process, prioritize the journey

Management Professor Lisa Orondez has suggested using goals as a compass, rather than a GPS. If you set a certain destination, you may get there, but what did you miss along the way? Maybe more opportunities and greater success. Setting a laser-focused plan with one path can lead to some of the demoralizing outcomes described earlier.  

Guidelines for Goals

If you can’t shake goal-setting for the new year, here are some guidelines for doing them right:

  • Make goals team-based and have employees participate in setting them to safeguard culture

  • Talk through what will happen if the goal is not met and avoid harsh penalties for missing it

  • Consider how the goal will impact risk-taking and set acceptable risk levels

  • Put safeguards in place to discourage unethical behavior


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