top of page

The sadness of goals


One of my very first published articles, about 20 years ago now, was about the wonders of goal setting. Goal setting is a very well researched topic. The leading research by Gary Latham and Edwin Locke boils down to the fact that setting a specific goal leads to better performance than asking someone to do their best.

You are probably quite familiar with goal setting, know all about S.M.A.R.T. goals, and perhaps even know about Latham’s advice to use developmental goals instead of outcome goals when a person is still learning how to do a task.

Goal setting is easy to understand, easy to implement and evidence-based. What more could we want in a management practice? The real issue seemed to be about doing goal setting well and doing it often—things we need to continually work on.

But there is another side to the story, sometimes, or maybe even quite often, goal setting can backfire.

The Dark Side of Goal Setting

Christopher Kayes, author of Destructive Goal Pursuit, argues that setting goals leads to destructive behaviour. His iconic example of this was the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest where eight people died, a story chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air. Kayes take on this was that having a clear, ambitious goal, led the climbers to take the foolish risks that lead to their death.

The Everest story is just one anecdote but Kayes has others and it is not too hard to think of examples in our own companies where single-minded pursuit of a goal, such as a revenue target, led to terrible outcomes.

The mechanism that drives the dark side of goal setting is that goal setting is a simple tool used in a complex world. In a simple laboratory setting goal setting always wins; in the real world we are sometimes (usually?) best to be wary of putting too much emphasis on goals.

The Sad Side of Goal Setting

So there you have it. Goal setting is a simple, proven, powerful tool but one that can go terribly wrong. This is sad because we would love to have some certainties in the HR profession. It is exciting to give training on setting S.M.A.R.T. goals and trot out all the research showing that this technique works. It spoils the fun when we have to say “Oh, and goals may also lead you to an untimely death.”

We might think the answer is “Use goals but in moderation. Find a balance.” In fact, that probably is the answer, however there is a broader point I want to focus on. If we say “1” is always setting goals and “10” is never setting goals then the “find a balance” solution suggests there is a simple answer somewhere around “5”.

I want to stress that there is no simple answer at all. We need to constantly confront the demons that cavort around goal setting to find the right solution at that moment. It’s a matter of skill, experience, conversation, and self-awareness.

We can give managers a lot of great tips, frameworks and processes. However, we can never give them a formula. As great as goal setting is, we cannot use it as a solid anchor in the storm of uncertainty. Teaching the sad side of goal setting is a tougher story to tell than one that trumpets its successes; nevertheless, to be good management advisors we must continually remind ourselves that the way ahead is rarely straightforward, and be comfortable moving forward in such a world.


bottom of page