Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting
Social Science Research Network
Goal setting is one of the most replicated and influential paradigms in the management literature. Hundreds of studies conducted in numerous countries and contexts have consistently demonstrated that setting specific, challenging goals can powerfully drive behavior and boost performance. Advocates of goal setting have had a substantial impact on research, management education, and management practice. In this article, we argue that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and
... been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision. We offer a warning label to accompany the practice of setting goals. Goals Gone Wild 3 Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting For decades, goal setting has been promoted as a halcyon pill for improving employee motivation and performance in organizations. Across hundreds of experiments, dozens of tasks, and thousands of participants across four continents, the results are clear (Locke, Latham, Smith, & Wood, 1990). Compared to vague, easy goals (e.g., "Do your best"), specific, challenging goals boost performance. In a review of four decades of goal-setting research, Locke and Latham (2006) claim, "So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance." In this article, however, we contend that goal setting has been over-prescribed. In particular, we argue that goal setting has powerful and predictable side effects. Rather than being offered as an "over-the-counter" salve for boosting performance, goal setting should be prescribed selectively, presented with a warning label, and closely monitored. Emblematic Examples of Goals Gone Wild Here are just a few examples of the hazards of indiscriminate goal setting. First, consider Sears, Roebuck and Co.'s experience with goal setting in the early 1990s. Sears set sales goals for its auto repair staff of $147/hour. This specific, challenging goal prompted staff to overcharge for work and to complete unnecessary repairs on a companywide basis (Dishneau, 1992) . Ultimately, Sears' Chairman Edward Brennan acknowledged that goal setting had motivated Sears' employees to deceive customers. Sears' "goal setting process for service advisers created an environment where mistakes did occur," Brennan admitted (Santoro & Paine, 1993) .