It may seem that planning out your goals in weekly, monthly, and yearly increments would be a blueprint for success. But could a more haphazard approach actually be better?
In my life, I’ve set and accomplished financial goals, but I haven’t set a career goal since college, when my one-year, five-year, and 10-year plans revolved around becoming a copywriter at an advertising agency and eventually leading a team. But then I stumbled into the world of publishing decades ago and never left. My modus operandi has been take each day as it comes and see what happens.
“Goal-setting research has shown that goals are great and horrible at the same time,” says Adam Galinsky, a professor of business at Columbia Business School and leading researcher on the topic. “Internal stretch goals can be good motivators for people who want to perform, stay focused, and get engaged.”
The downside is that goals can lead to undesirable behaviors and unintended consequences.
Goals can help you focus your attention, but they can also make that focus so narrow that people overlook other important features of a task, says Galinsky.
“This intense focus can blind people to important issues that appear unrelated to their goal (as in the case of Ford employees who overlooked safety testing to rush the Pinto to market),” Galinsky writes in “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” a study he cowrote and published in the Academy of Management Perspectives.
Bill Sanders, managing director of the operational-strategy consulting firm Roebling Strauss, Inc., agrees that goals often bring tunnel vision: “Leaders focused on a specific goal tend to miss alternative ways to achieve the same or better results, ignore warning signs that the ‘engine is hot,’ and miss what they could have learned on the journey by only thinking about the destination,” he says.
Another problem with goal setting is having too many can lead to poor choices. People with multiple goals are prone to concentrate on only one goal, ignoring the others, says Galinsky.
“Goals that are easier to achieve and measure (such as quantity) may be given more attention than other goals (such as quality) in a multi-goal situation,” he writes.
If the timing is off, goals can become ceilings rather than floors for performance, says Galinsky. Once a goal is achieved, people relax, rest, and pause.
A study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research set out to find why it’s so hard to get a cab in New York City on a rainy day. “Most people blame demand: When it is raining, more people hail cabs than when the weather is clear,” Galinsky writes. “But as it turns out, supply is another important culprit.”
Research found that most cab drivers set daily goals, and on rainy days they’re able to make money more quickly than on sunny days. When they hit their goal sooner, they go home.
Stretch goals should be challenging enough to inspire effort and performance, but not so hard that employees see no point in trying. While this logic makes sense, these goals can cause employees to take too much risk or even engage in bad behavior, says Galinsky.
For example: “At Sears’ automotive unit, employees charged customers for unnecessary repairs in order to meet specific, challenging goals,” he writes. “In the late 1980s, Miniscribe employees shipped bricks to customers instead of disk drives to meet shipping targets. And in 1993, Bausch and Lomb employees falsified financial statements to meet earnings goals. In each of these cases, specific, challenging goals motivated employees to engage in unethical behavior.”
Missing a specific goal, even slightly, can be easily interpreted as failure, which can limit potential, says Sanders. “Even though you may have outperformed anyone in your position before you, improved profits more than anyone could imagine, and improved the team’s skill set in the process, you can still walk away feeling like a failure,” he says.
And goals can trigger a fear of failure, adds Anisha Vinjamuri, CEO of the management-consulting firm InnovationsIQ. “The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear,” she says. “When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter, it commences a demotivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns.”
Innovation comes from a certain degree of chaos and randomness, says Vinjamuri. “Extreme goal setting kills creativity,” she says. “It creates a culture of fixed mind-set versus growth mind-set, which has been gaining a lot of traction in the recent years.”
This can also affect personal change. “To be great at any profession, it’s important to recognize what motivates us periodically and realign our career paths to match what we enjoy doing the most, because we tend to give our best when we’re most satisfied and happy at work,” Vinjamuri says. “As much as setting rigid goals gives us a sense of security, real growth comes from being able to handle and manage randomness. Much of it ties back to positive personality traits that are essential for growth in any profession like flexibility, adaptability, less resistance to change, and openness to new ideas.”
For me, accomplishments like starting and selling a business and writing a book with a teenage philanthropist (whose foundation is ironically named Random Kid) were things I could never have imagined or even known how to do if opportunities hadn’t shown up. Randomness has given me a penchant for life’s surprises.
Instead of asking yourself if you’re meeting your goals, Galinsky suggests asking, “Am I meeting my preferences? Writing those down can be helpful because it allows you to not lose track of it,” he says. “Sometimes we forget what’s important to us. But this changes over time.”
Also, be open to what happens and pay attention to your decisions. “There is a belief that you will find what you’re looking for when you’re not looking for it, such as looking for love,” says Galinsky. “It’s okay to have goals and then make your decisions consistent. Understanding your own preferences and what you want is critical, and it’s how you avoid making mistakes. But the value gets lost when you say things like, ‘Three years from now I will be assistant vice president.’ People get too strategic, and that takes out spontaneity.”