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

Published: Tuesday, June 30 2015 8:35 p.m. MDT

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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.

A version of this A version of this "warning label" appeared in "Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting" in the Academy of Management Perspectives journal. (Josh Ferrin, Deseret News)

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.

Lisa D. Ordóñez,  a professor at the University of Arizona and the lead author of Lisa D. Ordóñez, a professor at the University of Arizona and the lead author of "Goals Gone Wild," likes how this Dilbert cartoon captures the problems of goal setting. ()

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.

When Ordóñez tells the vegetable company's goal to her class, she asks them what they think the workers did.

"I didn't have to tell them," she says.

Her students correctly predict that the goal created a motivation for the workers not to look harder for bug parts in the vegetables they were canning, but to bring in small bags of bug parts from home. The bugs were added to any parts they really found and presented for the cash awards.

The stated company goal was to get more bug parts. It got more bug parts, but the food didn't get any cleaner.

Goals make focus too narrow

Goals, by their nature, narrow focus and attention. But Ordóñez says goals can become too narrow. People don't see the other things happening around them. "What are you NOT doing?" is the question people should ask themselves, she says.

Schweitzer says the goal to reach the moon in the 1960s is an example of a goal that was powerful and motivating. But even that goal had a darker side. "What it achieved was remarkable, but at an incredible cost," he says. "Was it worth it? Probably."

But the problem was the weight and hype of the goal shut down any discussion of the cost. People couldn't ask, "What else could we be doing with these resources?" Being open to ask that question and other questions about goals wouldn't necessarily mean changing those goals, but sometimes it would. Other times it could mean a refining of the goal. Good goals can stand up to questioning.

"If a goal is a sound goal," Schweitzer says, "it will push us forward and get us somewhere."

Goals increase risk

When people make goals, they are more willing to take risks. "People can be lulled into taking too much risk," Schweitzer says.

He gives the example of people who died climbing Mount Everest as described in the book "Into Thin Air." "By pursuing a goal to reach the mountaintop," he says, "they took risks they wouldn't normally take."

This can also happen in businesses or even in homes where goals to make money, for instance, lead to making risky investments.

Too many goals

If there are multiple goals, people will pick the easiest ones to do, Ordóñez says.

Having the right number of goals is as important as having the right goals. Since goals can narrow the focus, ancillary goals can broaden that focus. Too many goals and focus is lost.

Amy N. Dalton, an assistant professor of marketing at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, also found another way the number of goals affects achieving.

Studies have shown how a goal is easier to achieve if people use "implementation intentions," specific, detailed plans dealing with how, when and where a goal will be pursued. "When people form very concrete plans to achieve a goal, it is like creating a habit without first needing repetition," she says. "It is very powerful."

If a person makes a goal's context specific or concrete, the execution becomes almost automatic, she says. For example, a person can have a goal to run in the morning. By making plans for exactly what time, the precise route, what to wear, etc., it becomes easier to do. With detailed plans, a person's commitment to a goal increases.

But Dalton wondered if this was too good to be true. Were there situations where detailed plans didn't increase commitment to a goal?

The problem, she found, is that previous studies had looked at using detailed plans to achieve just one goal at a time, when most people are pursuing many goals at once.

Dalton's research found that if someone has multiple goals and makes detailed plans for all those goals, commitment to the goals drops because all the plans seem overwhelming and contradictory. As Dalton's research shows, the devil of so many details kills the commitment.

One way around this is to only make detailed plans for one goal and leave the other goals' plans less specific.

Dalton's study found that people were able to do multiple detailed goals if they thought other people had it worse than they did.

Easily measured goals win

Because people want to know when something is achieved, goals are usually made for the easiest-to-measure things. It is easy, Ordóñez says, for a company to measure sales. "How do you measure the quality of interaction between customers and the sales desk?" Ordóñez says.

Quantifying quality isn't easy. Even surveys of customer satisfaction bring out only the most happy and most angry customers' reactions, Ordóñez says.

Goals confuse floors and ceilings

New York cab drivers have goals for fares per day. When it rains, more people want to take a taxi and those goals are met early. Instead of staying on the job and raking in more fares, cabbies go home early. They read their goals as ceilings instead of floors to build upon.

"Goals are usually set where they could be attained by somebody with an average ability," Ordóñez says, "where they are challenging for the average person. But they can become demotivating for above-average people."

For example, an above-average salesperson meeting her quota before the end of this month might lie low and wait until next month before landing a few customers she could have easily sold today.

Goals lead to unethical behavior

Incentive goals work, Ordóñez says, but they turn the focus away from ethics or even safety.

Ford Motor Co.'s CEO, Lee Iacocca, set a goal in the late 1960s to produce a new car under 2,000 pounds they could sell for less than $2,000. It was a goal designed to help the company compete against cheaper, fuel-efficient cars from overseas.

The goal was high and stretching. But there was a problem. To move the car design forward, some safety checks were left unperformed. One of those safety checks was on the gas tank. The resulting car was the Ford Pinto — which had the bad habit of having the tank catch fire when hit from the rear.

The goal overrode the duty to make it safe.

"They weren't even evaluating ethical behavior," Ordóñez says.

A similar thing happened to Sears. The company made a goal in the early 1990s for its auto repair staff to make $147 in sales every hour. It was specific. It was challenging. It was a disaster.

The auto repair staff began overcharging and performed unnecessary repairs. "Having to reach that goal led to some really bad decisions," Schweitzer says.

Warning: Goals may be dangerous

Whenever Schweitzer sees a goal, it raises a red flag for him. "I think goals are important and motivating," he says, "but we need to be suspicious and vigilant when we are pursuing them. We need to be sure they are complete and that we are not missing the costs. We need to see how goals are narrowing our focus."

Ordóñez and Schweitzer pointed to their study, "Goals Gone Wild," and to 10 points people can use to avoid the dark side effects of goals:

1. Are the goals too narrow? What are you missing?

2. Are the goals too challenging? Will failure harm motivation? Avoid harsh punishment for failure to reach a goal.

3. Who sets the goals? People are committed to goals they help set (But they may make the goals too easy).

4. Is the time horizon appropriate? Be sure that short-term goals don't ruin long-term outcomes.

5. Do the goals encourage too much risk taking?

6. Do the goals motivate unethical behavior?

7. Can goals be adjusted for individual abilities while still being fair to others?

8. How will goals influence organizational culture? Contrast individual goals with team-goals.

9. Are individuals intrinsically motivated? Don't smother motivation.

10. Is a performance goal or a learning goal better to achieve the organization's goals? Learning goals work best in changing environments.

Once Ordóñez realized how her parental goal of four lessons a day had messed up her son's attempts to be ready for school, she reassessed. "I put my child through the same thing I wrote about in the study," she says.

By revising the goal with his input, a new and more achievable goal was put into place.

"For the most part," Ordóñez says, "goals work."

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