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Avoiding the dangers of leadership goal-setting

January 7th, 2013

by Kent Bottles

Setting personal and professional goals is a popular topic of conversation every January with the start of a new year.

When I was chief medical officer for a large Midwestern integrated healthcare system, goal setting was taken very seriously and incorporated into the bonus system for the senior executives.

At first, writing my first column of 2013 on practical goal-setting tips for hospital and physician leaders seemed like a good idea. Articles advised me to make my goals SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) and to set five-year goals that would naturally lead me to my lifetime goals.

I was buying into the entire program until I read that setting goals would help me "spot the distractions that can, so easily, lead you astray."


This observation focused my lingering skepticism and sent this column off in an unexpected direction. Distractions increasingly do not lead me astray; they lead me to new discoveries and a more spontaneous existence.

Being distracted by that sentence about distractions led me to find fellow skeptics about goal setting. A 2009 Academy of Management Perspectives article titled "Goals Gone Wild" pointed out that excessive goal setting can lead to unethical behavior. One peer-reviewed study found that subjects given a specific goal and/or a financial incentive were more likely to cheat than those who were only instructed to do their best.

In his book "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking," Oliver Burkeman tried to track down an often quoted 1953 Yale study of goals that found "the 3 percent of graduates with written goals had amassed greater financial wealth than the other 97 per cent combined" and concluded the study never took place.

Even though Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy and Zig Ziglar all include the Yale study in their motivational goal-setting speeches, Yale University can find no evidence of any such study.

In "Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mount Everest Disaster," management science professor Chris Kayes finds similarities between the 1996 mountaineering accidents that claimed the lives of 8 professional climbers and business failures. In both cases a goal is set and greeted with enthusiasm; evidence emerges that the goal is unwise; the negative evidence makes the participants invest more effort and resources to succeed; disaster occurs.

Burkeman used Kayes' approach to understand how pre-bankruptcy General Motors goal-setting campaign concentrated on the number 29, the percentage of the American car market that GM wanted to recapture from the Japanese manufacturers. This campaign failed because the company was so fixated on the goal of 29 percent that it spent all its money unwisely on advertising instead of research that might have produced innovative cars that Americans would want to purchase.

Wharton professor Maurice E. Schwitzer worries that too much emphasis on goals can inhibit learning and undermine intrinsic motivation. "If the goal is to earn a certain score on a math test, then that goal takes over. A love of learning or understanding of the elegance of math gets beaten out."

Kayes concluded that the Everest tragedy and many business failures are caused by "a passion for goals:"

"His hypothesis was that the more they fixated on the endpoint ... the more that goal became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their senses of themselves as accomplished guides or high-achieving amateurs. ... It would have become progressively more difficult for them to sacrifice their goal, despite accumulating evidence that it was becoming a suicidal one. Indeed, that accumulating evidence, Kayes was convinced, would have hardened the climbers’ determination not to turn back."

My advice for 2013 is not to abandon goal setting entirely. My advice is to choose goals wisely and continue to monitor them in light of changing conditions and the well-documented downsides of blindly following them at the expense of people and ideals.

Dr. Kent Bottles is a Senior Fellow at the Thomas Jefferson University School of Population Health.


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