The dark side of goal-setting

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Imagine you’re sitting down for a planning meeting with your team, and your manager is setting goals for each person to achieve by the end of the month. What goes through your mind? As soon as the clock starts ticking, you’re probably planning how to meet your goal, eyes fixed firmly on the end point.

But is this always a good thing? Setting targets and goals can focus attention so much that other information is missed. Before you read further, try watching the video below and counting the number of passes among the people wearing white shirts.

Most people don’t notice when a guy wearing a black gorilla costume wanders onscreen and off again – the instructions primed the brain to focus on one thing, meaning that others pass by unnoticed. If you set too many targets, what’s the risk of missing other important details? Performance targets automatically narrow your gaze from the bigger picture, putting the focus on what needs to be done to satisfy the measure.

Pressure to perform and meet targets is also an open invitation for less ethical companies to massage their data, manipulating metrics to achieve the desired results. As the VW ‘dieselgate’ scandal shows, companies can present a facade of good practice by fudging the numbers and gaming the data.

Throw performance incentives into the mix – the proverbial ‘carrot and stick’ – and the combination becomes even riskier. In June this year, The Guardian reported that the British government set immigration performance targets in the early 2000s, creating a system that essentially incentivised deportations and detentions: ‘Some staff were set “personal objectives” on which bonus payments were made “linked to targets to achieve enforced removals’.

Besides the fundamental moral problem of linking financial reward to human futures, there are other issues with using targets to motivate performance. When cases of patient neglect came to light in the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal, it emerged that “clinicians were making decisions based on achievement of a numerical target rather than patient welfare and service quality” (source). The top-down emphasis on complying with targets created a culture of fear and led to people fearing that they would lose their job if they failed to meet the goal.

While performance targets aren’t inherently bad, meeting them isn’t always a proxy for good performance. There are two issues to sum up here: what the targets are and what people might do to meet them. Although leaders and managers should be encouraging their people to aim high, they also need to think about the unintended consequences of setting tough goals.

Stay tuned for my follow-up post, discussing some practical ways for managers to set positive goals and motivate their teams.

Posted on 29th October 2018 in Insight
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