When I was in the US Air Force, I witnessed several examples of the downside of goal-setting. The structure of promotion often rewarded holding certain positions over the actual performance in the position. One example particularly sticks in my mind of a “fast burner,” or someone on the fast promotion track, who was shifted over 3 different desirable positions in a department in the space of 18 months…not enough time to master or be effective in the positions, but enough time to tick off those goals on the resume. Other incentives created a numbers game, where people assuming a new position would change things just for the sake of change, to generate a new set of numbers that would make the promotion evaluation look like they had done something significant.
We need to be careful about the goal-setting environment that we create. Emphasizing goals that improve character and learning, over performance or titles, are much more effective in the long run for ourselves and our organization. A skewed emphasis on performance goals can inhibit learning and erode teamwork. First, it diverts worker’s attention away from personal development—when the emphasis is on hitting the quarterly numbers, employees may not feel they have time to devote to self-improvement. Second, pitting employees against each other in competition in relentless pursuit of performance goals erodes teamwork. (For more on the darker side of goal-setting, check out this Harvard Business School piece on “Goals Gone Wild.”)
Detox Your Goals
Here are some ways to detox your goal-setting environment. Please leave a comment if you have thoughts on these or other ways to improve goal-reward culture in an organization.
- Choose “learning goals” over “performance goals.”
- Tailor goals to individuals in an equitable way.
- Use a team goal (but design so members can’t “freeload” on other’s work).
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