Good Goals Gone Bad

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We’ve spent the past five weeks discussing the importance of setting goals, and have shared some of our favorite tips to ensure success – tips that touch on ways to develop and focus mind, and body, and spirit on achieving the goals we’ve defined for ourselves. But before we go too much farther, let’s talk about the dark side of goal-setting: When good goals go bad.

According to the working paper, “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goals Setting,” by Lisa D. Ordóñez, Eller College of Management, University of Arizona; Maurice E. Schweitzer, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; Adam D. Galinsky, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University; and Max Bazerman, Harvard Business School, “Hundreds of studies conducted in numerous countries and contexts have consistently demonstrated that setting specific, challenging goals can powerfully drive behavior and boost performance.” That’s the story we’ve been hearing for decades, right? That’s the theme, here at TheNextGoal.

But the authors of the paper go on to argue “that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored.”

Problems include:

  • A narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas
  • Harm to interpersonal relationships
  • A rise in unethical behavior
  • Distorted risk preferences
  • Corrosion of organizational culture
  • Reduced intrinsic motivation

One example the authors cite is that of Ford Motor Company. In the late 1960s, Ford was losing market share to foreign competitors who offered smaller, less expensive, and more fuel-efficient cars. Lee Iacocca, Ford’s CEO, handed down what would seem to be a a laudable “SMART goal”:  to produce a new car “under 2000 pounds and under $2,000” and have it ready to buy in 1970. Committed to meeting this “stretch goal,” management waived important safety checks and tragically missed a design flaw that could cause the new car – the Ford Pinto – to ignite on impact. 53 people died; many others sustained injuries. Investigations later revealed that after Ford learned of the hazard, executives calculated that the costs of lawsuits would be less than the cost of fixing the design.

Can you think of any goals you’ve pursued with such single-minded focus that you’ve allowed other important aspects of your life to be neglected? Have you ever put your “success” ahead of your health or your family’s happiness?

Goal setting also tends to focus on the ends rather than the means, creating a fertile environment for unethical behaviors such as cheating to achieve the objective, or lying about performance – especially when the results are hard to verify objectively. While clearly stated values and rigorous commitment to ethics can mitigate some of this, research has shown that aggressive goal-setting directly and indirectly motivates people to act unethically.

When there are specific goals at stake – as opposed to a more vague “do your best” – it seems that people are less likely to try new or innovative approaches that would foster learning by experience.

In a culture of competition – as in the US, where we revere athletics and treat politics like a football game – laser-focused, performance-based goal-setting can erode a natural spirit of co-operation and helpfulness that holds teams together, ultimately lowering overall performance. In addition, it can destroy intrinsic motivation – the joy of doing a thing simply for its own sake.

What really motivates people? Here’s an interesting video on the topic from Dan Pink:

These challenges are relevant to TheNextGoal team – and to the “Surviving the Blog” Contest, itself. Obviously, the goal is to win – and the nature of the contest is “winner takes all.” We have spent the first five weeks focused on beating the other team. Now that we’ve achieved that very specific objective, we are faced with competing against each other. And it’s a lot harder to contemplate eliminating a teammate than it was to focus on eliminating the other team. The only goal I can see that allows us to “survive the blog” and each other, is to “do our best.” Focusing on the prize money draws attention away from the fact that we’re a terrific team – and that none of us would much enjoy running TheNextGoal without the other members of the team. Focusing too narrowly on any of this harms our relationship with each other and our supporters. Ten weeks of “click this, share that, vote for me, subscribe to my list” strains even the devotion of family and close friends. So far, we’ve won without even being tempted to cheat or lie about our performance – although there were a few jokes (“I told Kiesha my subscriber count was one more than Holly’s – whatever hers was!”). As for distorted risk preferences, the main one for me, right now, is sleep and health. Of course, I had committed to “Surviving the Blog” more fully, and earlier, than I had committed to NaNoWriMo, but I had overestimated my ability to do both – at all, let alone well. If our team’s “organizational culture” survives intact, I will be pleasantly surprised – but that is very much at risk, I think, when going from a cohesive team with a common goal to becoming individual competitors whose primary goal is now to beat each other to the finish line.

Fantastic. We’ve become a case study in a Petri dish disguised as a blog. The next five weeks should be interesting!

Bloggers: If you like this post, please link back to it from your own blog. Also, I’m looking for opportunities to post a guest blog or two – please contact me if interested.

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About Holly Jahangiri

Holly Jahangiri lives in Texas and claims to channel the spirits of Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry and Erma Bombeck. She has known since fifth grade that she wanted to be a professional writer. Holly is a technical communicator whose imagination is allowed free rein in her short stories, children's books, and poetry. You can visit her personal blog, "It's All a Matter of Perspective," at

About Holly Jahangiri

Holly Jahangiri lives in Texas and claims to channel the spirits of Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry and Erma Bombeck. She has known since fifth grade that she wanted to be a professional writer. Holly is a technical communicator whose imagination is allowed free rein in her short stories, children's books, and poetry. You can visit her personal blog, "It's All a Matter of Perspective," at


  1. I think goal change and evolve…good or bad goals you can fix it but finding other goals
    mexican appetizers recently posted..A Simple Quesadilla RecipeMy Profile

  2. I tend to believe that there are always inherent dangers with everything, including things that are good for us. I’m reminded of the 6th Harry Potter book where early on this professor talks about a potion that can bring a person good luck for up to 12 hours. When asked why people don’t take it all the time he stresses the dangers of enhanced luckiness all the time which includes changes in personality and overlooking things that could harm them once the luck ran out.

    I’m a goal setter, a serial one at that, and thus I’m always promoting setting goals. But goals without plans, or ethics, are false and meaningless. Ford’s certainly not the only company that’s lost its ethics when trying to reach a goal. Goodness, look at some of what our government allowed to go on in sending people into outer space. Still, without goals, amazing things don’t take place, and we’d have few of the items in our lives that make them better without someone setting goals.

    At least that’s how I see it. 🙂
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted..Not Following Opposing Views; Good Or Bad?My Profile

  3. Goals are great until circumstances change and we’re forced to alter our objectives.

    Back in the 70’s I enjoyed visiting my buddies at various colleges, there’s no better place to cruise chicks. Find a frat-party because no fraternity would ever dare charge a girl a keg-fee, don a leather jacket, refrain from blowing a duck-call and you might get lucky.

    My goal was focused on getting lucky. I had a brand new 1976 GMC van with leopard print curtains, a wine rack, fridge and a bed in the back with a mirror on the ceiling. I was serious about goals.

    I met this chick at the University of Minnesota Morris, she said that she lost her dorm-key in my shag carpet so we spent the next hour looking for her key and talking. I sent her a dozen roses on Monday without a card. A single guy should never include a card with flowers if they’re serious about “that” goal.

    I kept getting cards in the mail from her and I didn’t consider the behavior as anything like FaceBook stalking, she drew “Ziggy” cartoons on the outside of the envelope and she knew I liked “Ziggy.”

    More than a year later (I was still living at home) the substitute/summer postman knocks at the door and he’s like twenty something and says: “I have a letter from Jane and wanted to tell you that she broke up with me after she met you.” After all that, I called Jane and she was living in Minneapolis and going to nursing school. I bought a large stuffed “Snoopy” dog ( because she liked Snoopy and the cartoon competition had already begun) and brought it to a children’s store and asked if they could dress it. I drove over to take her out in my 62 Corvette because I was reticent about using my van again. I had Snoopy all dressed up and next to me with the top down when I pulled up at her four-plex-student-housing.

    Somewhere along the way I misplaced a little testosterone and forgot that chicks also cruise guys. We got married and I had to change that goal I had put so much effort into. I cried when I sold my van, she did too, she’s like that.

  4. You have got a nice blog.

    And yes, although goal setting is important it can lead to disastrous consequences when you make the goal your only aim. However, to achieve efficiency I strongly believe that goals or plans should be made and followed carefully.
    Prem Gaire recently posted..Baba Ramdev Captured in My Sketch!My Profile

  5. I definitely agree with this post – I have a huge, ridiculous habit of putting so much effort into all the things I do – primarily school, work, and the student organization I’m an officer for – that I severely neglect my personal health. Another huge side effect is that, though I’m living at home instead of in the dorms this year, I speak to my family even LESS frequently – counter-intuitive, right?

    The worst thing, though, is that I push myself so hard that I won’t have time to pack a lunch and will be unable to afford to BUY a lunch, and then I won’t eat. I’m already really small, and I’ve been losing weight and getting really sick. I think that’s a prime example of what this article is about, and it makes me really nervous because I simply cannot afford to get sick. There’s too much to do. So at this point, I’m just bulldozing my way through it. (Imagine that: I’m too stubborn to get or stay sick!)
    Feliza recently posted..NaNoWriMo 2011: We’re Halfway There!My Profile

    • Now you’ve gone and triggered my inner Mama Tiger, Feliza – you must be about my daughter’s age, and I know that she does this to herself, too. We all do, sometimes.

      Try taking a bit of time on the weekend to pack a lunch for the next few days – something easy that you can stick in the fridge or freezer (a frozen sandwich should thaw by lunch time, and while it’s not gourmet, should hold body and soul together better than nothing). Busy parents manage to make their kids’ school lunches – remind yourself that you really NEED to take care of your inner child and feed it, as you would a real child or a pet.

      Too many people count on you, Feliza, for you to get sick. My husband once pointed out to me (in a slightly different context, but the principle is the same) that it’s not 100% or nothing. 60% is better than 0%, right? If you push and push and push and fail yourself and others because you got “really sick” (you can’t afford lunch, then you really cannot afford the doctor’s or hospital’s bills!) then you’ve done no one any good with your ambitious perfectionism. Breathe (read Ntathu’s posts here on meditation and yoga) and make taking better care of yourself your most important goal. Please.
      Holly Jahangiri recently posted..100 Good Things About MeMy Profile

      • I usually pack at least a container of rice – I’m half Asian, we have a rice cooker – but of late we haven’t had leftovers, so it’s harder for me to pack a lunch. I do try and grab at least a snack! It’s just been so cold here lately that a little bit isn’t going as far as it used to.

        Thankfully, I haven’t been hospitalized yet! But I know tons of people do rely on me, though now that I’m an officer in the student org, I’m learning to delegate…

        Delegating is amazing.

        Also, Thanksgiving is just around the corner, so I’m looking forward to kicking back!
        Feliza recently posted..[Guest Post] NaNoWriMo and Writing ImmediacyMy Profile

        • Try cooking some rice and lentils up the night before or make a big batch of veggie and lentil soup on the weekend – you can make a big batch, get some of those cheap, reusable Glad containers, and pack portions for the whole week as your “go-to” food. I’m assuming you have access at the school to a microwave, or don’t mind eating the rice cold? If you go with the soup idea, you may want to buy a Thermos, nuke the soup at home in the morning, and carry it in the Thermos. Sandwiches made with nut butters (I like almond) can also be easy to make and carry, and have lots of nutritional value and stick to you to keep you from starving all day. Keep a can of almonds in your car or purse. No fuss – just satisfying and good for you, and easy to store without refrigeration. Planning is key!
          Holly Jahangiri recently posted..What do Dirty Dishes and Your Next Goal Have in Common?My Profile

          • WOW (like Steve jobs said).

            Feliza, you are well written and obviously intelligent. I understand the -fail- on diet.

            I’m not going to offer any suggestion, I’ve been there and done that.

            I’ve never found a worthy goal unless there was some happiness attached–that was a difficult google for me Feliza:)


  6. You’ve got good points there. However, I think, the danger of goal setting thrives on the fact that you solely put your focus to achieve what you want. Goals will help as long as you treat them as a guide and not as a mandate.

  7. On a lighter note, I love RSA! Accomplishment will always trump cash for personal goals even though we need to eat. We are all born with a potential and at least a modicum talent, humans have a need to let that creativity out of the cage occasionally.

    Personal goals and their attendant accomplishments are more satisfying than money in my opinion–in a perfect America, money is the byproduct of an individual’s drive. Look how many folks are earning a living supporting Linux after so many contributed freely simply because they could.

    • If it all came down to money, would I be doing THIS? LOL The prize is good, but I really do think we have EACH put in that much in time and effort already, and would be financially ahead if we just laid down our typewriters and quit. We’re having too much fun to do THAT, though! 😉
      Holly Jahangiri recently posted..Fishmongers are Spalpeens!My Profile

      • I can’t believe you folks are sticking this “blog survivor” thing out to the bitter end either, I’ve always thought writers were snooty and tended towards OCD (Obsessive Control Disorder) yet I’ve really enjoyed this contest and the content produced by so many good peeps.

        There’s a new reality show on Cable about jousting, I’m not saying ya’ll are like that but I understood and didn’t turn the channel right away…

        • About JOUSTING?? Oh, do tell – William would love that. (He wants to buy chain mail. What he REALLY wanted was a real suit of armor, but realized it would cost as much as a cheap car, and wisely decided to settle for functional chain mail.)

          I’m glad you’re enjoying this, Dave. You know, if you just told me to go feed Prunebutt, I might quit. 😉 Real writers like to eat, like the next guy. Snooty? The ones with that kind of attitude don’t last long in the publishing world – editors know just how to slice ’em, dice ’em, and cut ’em down to size. OCD? Well…

          Let’s not go there.

          Ooooh! Pretty, shiny… wait, that’s my ADD. All that alphabet soup. How about we just settle for “Writers are crazy – but a GOOD kind of crazy”?
          Holly Jahangiri recently posted..Class ReunionMy Profile

        • Wait, JOUSTING?! What channel is this on? How can I access this show online?!?!
          Feliza recently posted..Word Padding for Fun and ProfitMy Profile

  8. I agree with Dave. Setting goals is important, and as long as a person’s path to that goal is moral, ethical, and legal, it’s worthwhile to pursue it.
    Alex J. Cavanaugh recently posted..On The Other Side…My Profile

    • Oh, I agree with Dave as well – BUT, I think the point here is that overly aggressive goals can fail to take other important dimensions into account, and yield results like the Ford Pinto. Or cheating on SAT tests. Or on life. The goal should be formulated with those other important considerations in mind – not so narrowly focused on one metric that it fails on the rest.
      Holly Jahangiri recently posted..Are You a Motivated Goal-Seeker? Find Out With a Free QuizMy Profile

      • I think we’re talking about the same thing. Alex states: “…moral, ethical and legal…”

        I assuming everyone breaks a goal down to the behavioral steps that enable us to achieve it; simply wishing never seems to make a goal happen. The Pinto example might show how Ford bypassed their safety testing (behavioral steps) in order to achieve their goal faster. This may have been corporate enthusiasm but they were ultimately judged both ethically and legally.

        • And you bring up another important point, Dave – when a goal is handed down to us from on high, and we’re left to formulate the procedural steps in a vacuum, there’s a lot of pressure to perform. I think it’s important (as do most corporations, I think – as shown by the number of “compliance training” and ethics programs they run) for management to make it VERY clear what may and may not be sacrificed along the way. To put the father of four in the position of fearing for his continued employment vs. a small but real risk of a few products causing bodily harm may be too much for some people, if left to their own devices. The point is, this study showed it IS too much for many people. There are a lot of ethical or unethical behaviors that seem very clear in hindsight – and might have been far MORE clear at the time, had someone at the executive level said, “Look, here’s the GOAL, but if there are any safety concerns, those are more important.”
          Holly Jahangiri recently posted..Class ReunionMy Profile

          • This begs the question: “What is a Manager?”

            A manager is the person that states to executives: “Your goal isn’t sympathetic with our corporate mission as you want it executed” while the same manager says to staff: “We can do this, we just need to break it down and everybody own a chunk as part of the team according to your talent.”

            I could never build a Pinto by myself, but I could build a better Pinto if I had the same people and a slightly different motivation)

  9. I disagree somewhat Holly. I read something a long time ago about setting goals and it has stuck with me: “Success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal.”

    I can’t remember whom to attribute that quote but it has served me well. How a person roots their goal in family, community and behavior might have an effect on the outcome. I could set a goal of constructing the best crack-pipe or I could set a goal of helping one of my kids with one of their goals.

    I think the premise and foundation of a goal is the Star-Gate of entry; choosing poorly gives us a mug-shot like LiLo’s no matter how hard we work and even when the deck is stacked in our favor at the beginning.

    • Exactly – but even the BEST goals, if focused too aggressively and narrowly on one thing (unlike your “best crack pipe” example) can fail horribly and miserably on other aspects. There was nothing inherently wrong with the initial goal that led to the Ford Pinto disaster. The problem was failing to stress the equal or greater importance of other goals, like safety, that took a good goal and turned it bad. I don’t think we’re disagreeing, exactly. “Build the best crack-pipe” probably wasn’t a great goal to start with, but I’m sure if we look around, we can find plenty to argue the point. 😉
      Holly Jahangiri recently posted..Are You a Motivated Goal-Seeker? Find Out With a Free QuizMy Profile


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