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A downside to goals? While important, goals can be dangerous if used improperly

Published: Monday, Sept. 24 2012 7:55 p.m. MDT

Lisa D. Ordóñez couldn't believe she had done it to her own child.

Her 11-year-old son needed to prepare this summer for a math course in the coming school year. Ordóñez set a goal for him to work through a math workbook by doing four lessons a day.

But it was too much. To meet her goal for him, he started just filling in the lessons with the answers from the key in the back of the book.

"There was no way he could do four lessons a day," she says.

Ordóñez had just come face-to-face with one of goal-setting's dirty little secrets: Goals can have a down side.

But this wasn't a surprise. Ordóñez is a professor in the department of management and organizations at the University of Arizona and was the lead author of "Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting" in the Academy of Management Perspectives journal.

Goals are pervasive in American culture. And the dark side of goals is just as pervasive. From the mortgage crisis to bank bailouts, government leaders struggle to solve problems caused by goals that went astray. And the solutions to these problems are goals also.

As people try to cope with rising costs from gas to groceries, they turn to goals to overcome their difficulties. Goals have become synonymous with dreams. But there are hidden dangers in goal setting that are often overlooked. Knowing the downside of goals can help people and leaders set more effective goals — and help them to know when goals just are not the answer.

Seductive and effective goals

Maurice Schweitzer is a professor of operations and information management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author with Ordóñez on the "Goals Gone Wild" study.

"It is important to have goals," Schweitzer says. "They give meaning and purpose to life and, in an organization, they help to coordinate effort."

But Schweitzer likens the use of goals to medicine. Goals shouldn't be treated like a weak over-the-counter ointment. Instead, goals are more like a powerful prescription drug. They are strong and incredibly effective, but dangerous if used improperly or carelessly. Being unaware of the side effects can even be fatal. "People have gone overboard on goals and haven't given the dark side of goals enough attention," he says.

Ordóñez says there have been other studies that show the negative effects of goals, but none has pulled all those effects together.

"I think goals work," she says, "The benefits are so overwhelmingly good, but goals can lead to problems if not done carefully."

And those problems are predictable and, if watched for, preventable.

Goals create bad motivations

To see how goals can create unintended motivation, Ordóñez says to compare the motivational difference in soldiers' minds between World War II and the Vietnam war. In World War II, Ordóñez says the goal was "come home when the war is done." In Vietnam it was "come home when your tour is done." In one, victory was the way to get home. In the other, it was survival, causing some soldiers to lose sight of the larger goals of the war.

People need to ask themselves what they really want, Ordóñez says, and then ask themselves what their goals are really motivating. "You have to monitor goals carefully and think things through," she says.

The executives at one vegetable company didn't think things through. Their goal was to reduce the amount of bug parts in their canned food. To implement that goal, they started to pay their workers for the bug parts they found.

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