Goals Can Harm You!

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

Goal setting is one of the most replicated and influential paradigms in the management context. It's believed that setting specific, challenging goals can powerfully drive behavior and boost performance. My observation tells me that if you don't pay closer attention and ensure that you are carefully crafting your goals, they can be harmful than useful. On the other hand, goal setting is not a silver bullet so you must manage your goal setting initiatives so carefully - if you don't get the goals setting right, you may face severe side effects: We discuss these side effects and how goals can drive you wild.

Can Goals Harm You, Can They Go Wild?

When I worked for a global bank back in 2011, we had adopted SMART Goal setting framework with a greater emphasis that we must follow it. The leadership advocated that, if we are to be successful, we must follow them - We had so may training programs teaching us how to write effective smart goals - We were asked to write very specific, measurable, challenging goals for evaluating employee performance. Did it help? Yes, Specific goals focus people’s attention; lacking a specific goal, employee attention may be dispersed across too many possible objectives. In turn, because challenging goals, or “stretch” goals, create a discrepancy between one’s current and expected output, they motivate greater effort and persistence.

Although specific and, challenging goals can produce positive results, at the same time, they can “go wild.” - they can suffer with so many problems. Let's find out how can the goals can go wild.

When Goals Are Too Specific

It's no doubt that goals focus attention. Unfortunately, goals can focus attention so

narrowly that people overlook other important features of a priority. Consider Simons and Chabris' (1999; Neisser, 1979) conducted a study on a brain condition called Inattention blindness. Have you have heard of it?

Your brain is bombarded with far more information than it can handle. So your brain can not handle all of it. It can only handle very small amount of information - Basically the brain just tries to handle the objects that just closer important and just in-front of you at any given moment. Due to this sometime, we totally miss out obvious objects in front of us or very critical goals that matter.

This happens due to the brain condition called Inattentional Blindness. It happens due to a hardwired survival mechanism called "Smooth Pursuit" - You focus on what is more important to you and ignore everything else. As much as this can help you, due to this, you may miss out so important contexts and information.

So the same thing could happen when you set goals and try to achieve them. If you get the objectives too specific, you just focus on those too specific goals while missing out other important perspectives and sometimes, complete goals outside your attention.

When Goals Are Too Narrowed

With goals, people narrow their focus. This intense focus can blind people such a way very important issues seen as totally unrelated and therefore miss out

Case Study at Ford

When Ford wanted to launch Pinto to the market, its employees overlooked safety testing to rush the it to market. This resulted poor quality cars been produced due to too narrow goals on the speed.

Consistent with the classic notion that you get what you reward (Kerr, 1975, 1995), goal setting may cause people to ignore important dimensions of performance that are not specified by the goal setting system. (Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, Max H. Bazerman)

Staw and Boettger (1990) did another study on narrow goals:
They asked students to proofread a paragraph that contained both grammatical and blatant content errors. The paragraph was purportedly going to be used in a brochure promoting the business college. The authors found that individuals instructed to “do your best” were more likely to correct both grammatical and content errors than were those who were given explicit goals to correct either grammar or content. The argument is that when you focus on too narrowed goals, you tend to just focus on those and neglect the overall outcome or the value delivery.

Goals “inform the individual about what behavior is valued and appropriate” (Staw & Boettger, 1990). As much as goals can help people to focus and pay greater attention, they can force people to focus on just short-term gains and to lose sight of the potential devastating long-term effects on the organization.

When You have Too Many Goals

When people are given many goals at a given time, the studies show that they tend to ignore certain goals and just focus on just one goal. Shah, Friedman, and Kruglanski (2002) had found that some tasks are to be ignored than others.

When multiple qualitative and quantitative goals are given to people and when qualitative and quantitative goals were both difficult, they compromised quality over quantity.

In a nutshell, humans are not wired to multi-task - we could only handle a few things at a given time (number may depends on the individuals) - A guaranteed way to fail is to overload your backlog - when you have many goals in hand, it doesn't help your psychology - pick up the most important goals a for a given time box.

When Time Horizons are inappropriate

Although your goals are appropriate if the time horizon considered is inappropriate, it will not help your to success as per your expectation. For example, when you set the most immediate goals for your teams, they may fully focus on those whiling lacking the visibility and attention on the strategic goals and big picture.

Let's say, you set weekly goals for your team and your team nails it - they achieve every goals been set - now, if they overlook the long term goals, they might just relax themselves since they have met their weekly targets. Ideally, while you are looking at your weekly goals, you must be clear on your monthly, quarterly and even long term goals.

Case Study from New York City cab drivers

This study found the answer for a so-common, yet a challenging questions - Why it is so hard to get a cab on a rainy day (Camerer, Babcock, Loewenstein, & Thaler, 1997). Most people blame demand: When it is raining, more people hail cabs than when the weather is clear. But as it turns out, supply is another important culprit. As a day progresses, cabs start disappearing more quickly from Manhattan streets on rainy days than on sunny days. Why? Because of the specific, daily goals that most cab drivers set: a goal to earn double the amount it costs them to rent out their cabs for a 12-hour shift. On rainy days, cab drivers make money more quickly than on sunny days because the higher demand, hit their daily goal sooner, and then stop right there as they have reached their goal ceiling

Instead if NYC taxi drivers used a longer time horizon such weekly, kept track of indicators of increased demand (e.g., rain or special events), and ignored their typical daily goal, they could increase their overall wages, reduce the overall time they spend working.

When Goals are Too Challenging

get It is generally advice that the goals must be difficult to inspire and motivate people allowing them to stretch their limits to reach the goals set. Such goals require full commitment, energy and focus which of course help in most of the cases for the people to chase them and achieve them - well, if the people achieve their challenging goals, they are better off.

Yet, the goals are too challenging, it can cause very serious side effects such ignoring the most critical perspectives,

  • Overlooking the overall quality

  • Compromising on risk attitudes

  • Promoting unethical behavior

  • Triggering demotivate and tension which will be counter-productive

  • Too challenging goals may inspire performance but prevent learning

Goals create a culture of competition. Organizations that rely heavily on goal setting may eradicate the collaboration. Arrow (1973) argued that an exclusive focus on profit maximization can harm altruistic and other-regarding behavioral motives. Similarly, being too focused on achieving a specific goal may decrease extra-role behavior, such as helping coworkers (Wright, George, Farnsworth, & McMahan, 1993). Goals may promote competition rather than cooperation and ultimately lower overall performance (Mitchell & Silver, 1990)

When Goals Can Demotivate You

As goal setting increases extrinsic motivation, it can harm intrinsic motivation – engaging in a task for its own sake (Mossholder, 1980; Rawsthorne & Elliot, 1999; Shalley & Oldham, 1985). This is true of rewards in general (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999), but several studies demonstrate that this is particularly true for goals themselves (Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1996; Rawsthorne & Elliot, 1999).

By setting goals, managers may create a hedonic treadmill in which employees are motivated by external means (goals, rewards, etc.) and not by the intrinsic value of the job itself (Deci, 1971, 1975).

Bringing It Altogether

Goal setting is something you can not avoid or totally neglect as a professional, business owner or just as an individual. We all, pretty much every one of us must learn how to set goals because, without setting a target or a direction, it's quite impossible for us to move - However, there are so many malpractices around, many dynamics are not supportive of setting effective goals, many organizations suffer from above problems and yet they are totally ignorant - this has created so much energy, time and financial wastes and it's the right time to fix your problems:


Ordóñez, D., Schweitzer, M., Galinsky, A., Bazerman, M. and Ordóñez, L. (n.d.). Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting. [online] . Available at: https://www.hbs.edu/ris/Publication%20Files/09-083.pdf.

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