Secret Dreams and Forbidden Fire | The Perils of Goal Setting

I was having a discussion over the weekend about goals and it came to light that I may think differently about setting goals, thinking about what I want to achieve in life, then some others and wondered how different I really am.

The concept of the “bucket list” has been around for awhile, but gained traction with people after the movie came out in 2007 (Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson). we all have an internal list whether we ascribe to the concept or not. We have all said to ourselves “before I die I want to …. ” at least once.

The danger in setting goals is that setting them unrealistically can be as damaging as not setting any at all. The sense of failure is all too real, and setting a goal that is too lofty, or unrealistic, and then failing at that same goal, can be mentally damaging and send you into an internal spiral you may not get out of, and all because you set your site on something that was going to be out of your reach, or setting it too happen too soon. Mine was in 2014 when I set the goal to race Ironman Chattanooga. This was a goal that was doomed from the start. I didn’t have the base for it yet, I had yet to even have a sub 8 hour 70.3 race, and I didn’t have the time to devote to getting to the level I needed to be at. When I had to pull from the race it was devastating mentally, even though it was the right choice. I felt like I had failed myself, the people who read this blog and listen to the podcasts, my friends … everyone. But the truth was that it was a goal that was out of reach at that point in time, so I had set myself up for that failure.

But sometimes setting a lofty goal is what you need to get the job done; to light the fire in you.

When John F. Kennedy said boldly that the United States goal was by the end of the decade (the 1960’s) we would send a man to the moon and return him safely, many scoffed at the notion. But it worked. It lit the fire and it was accomplished, due in some part to the country wanting to realize his legacy after his assassination. There are a few interesting essay’s about whether that goal would have been met had he not been killed in 1963. It’s an interesting thought experiment.

But for every Kennedy example we have an Iaccoca. In 1969, just as Kennedy’s goal was being met, Iaccoca, the head of Ford, was seeing the small car market being taken over by imports like Datsun (Nissan) and Toyota. So he claimed that Ford would design a new automobile that would weigh less than 2,000 pounds and would sell for under $2,000 by the 1971 new car year. What resulted was the Ford Pinto. The rush to create the Pinto in the set time frame had lethal consequences. Common-sense safety checks were skipped and corners were cut in order to meet the timeline, particularly, engineers failing to examine the decision to place the Pinto’s fuel tank 10 inches behind the rear axle. This resulted in Pinto’s bursting into flames when it was rear ended. This lofty goal caused 53 deaths, numerous injuries and a string of costly lawsuits.

Another example is the Sears issue in the 1990’s. Corporate set a specific sales target for its auto repair staff of $147 per hour. In order to meet management’s goal, however, mechanics began to perform unnecessary repairs or overcharge customers, which triggered a major customer-relations crisis for the giant retailer. Edward Brennan, chairman of Sears at the time, later admitted that the “goal setting process for service advisers created an environment where mistakes did occur.”

Ya think?

In the paper titled titled “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,” co-authored by Maurice Schweitzer of the Wharton College, Lisa D. Ordóñez from the Eller College of Management, University of Arizona; Adam D. Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Max H. Bazerman from the Harvard Business School, appearing in the February issue of the Academy of Management Perspectives, they cite numerous cases of goal setting having adverse effects. Schweitzer states that “We took a strong stand in this article, because we are pushing against the pervasive use of goal setting in practice and a very large body of literature that has endorsed goal setting. We argue that managers and scholars have grown complacent in their endorsement of goal setting … often [neglecting] the harmful effects. We argue that goal setting is wildly over-prescribed.”

The paper identifies a series of problems that they say are linked to the overuse of goal setting, especially when the targets are either too specific or too challenging. These are:

  • Goals that are too specific often lead employees to develop such a narrow focus that they fail to recognize obvious problems unrelated to the target. According to the authors, highly specific goals may cause workers to sacrifice safety for speed–as in the case of the Ford Pinto–or pursue misguided end results, as was the case at Enron.
  • Too many goals have what the authors consider an inappropriate time horizon. They refer to the well known example of managers who are pressured to meet quarterly earnings goals, causing them to ignore long-term strategic problems.
  • Workers with highly specific and ambitious targets will engage in risky practices in order to meet them.
  • Unethical behavior is one of the more obvious pitfalls of overly ambitious goal setting, with potentially some of the most catastrophic consequences. This can happen in a number of ways–such as the safety shortcuts at Ford or the bilking of auto-repair customers at Sears. The authors also note incidents where employees offered bogus results to claim that a target was reached.

(Portions taken from the Forbes article “Why Goal Setting Can Lead To Disaster”, July 2009)

So reach for the stars, but keep your feet planted. Stay realistic in what you want to accomplish, and set achievable timelines. You can reach the moon and come back if you do it correctly, or can be rear ended and go up in flames. It’s up to you.

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