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Goal for 2013: No Goals

Recent research suggests goals can do more harm than good.

December 19, 2012

Maybe it's time for a new year's resolution that trashes previous ones.

Maybe we should toss goals in the garbage.

Author Peter Bregman has a provocative essay at Harvard Business Review arguing that goals can do more harm than good. "It's not that goals, by their nature, are bad," Bregman writes. "It's just that they come with a number of side effects that suggest you may be better off without them."

Bregman argues that goals can generate unnecessary stress, and he cites a HarvardBusinessSchoolworking paper with the excellent title, Goals Gone Wild. It finds goals can lead to myopia, harm interpersonal relationships and motivate unethical behavior. The paper also saw these side effects of goals: "corrosion of organizational culture" and "reduced intrinsic motivation."

On the culture corrosion and unethical behavior fronts, the paper cites an example of Sears setting a productivity goal for its auto repair staff. Employees were asked to hit the target of $147 in sales for every hour of work. But the target prompted the staff to overcharge and complete unnecessary repairs on a companywide basis.

I think Bregman and the paper's authors are onto something. Another piece of the puzzle concerns the way performance targets may crimp creativity.

Innovation is a top priority for executives worldwide these days. So we recently asked readers about the most effective tools for spurring innovation among employees (our package on innovation and workforce management will be published next month). We found that "Giving employees freedom to spend time developing ideas and projects" ranked as the second-most effective approach (behind "facilitating more collaboration among employees"). But providing employees with freedom ranked a distant fourth when companies were asked what strategies they are actually using.

In other words, companies know employee autonomy to explore ideas is a smart innovation strategy. But they aren't tapping this tactic like they should. I suspect a major reason for the disconnect is that companies and employees are too focused on hitting their performance goals.

Yes, goals can be useful and sometimes can't be avoided. But today's business climate puts "measurable results" on a pedestal.

I'm among the guilty. I look for goals and goal-achievement in the companies I write about, in my own organization, in my own life. But lately, I've been feeling a lot of stress related to a book I'm co-writing and the deadlines I've helped to set. Fear that I won't hit the goals sometimes leads me to procrastinate. Which of course deepens the stress!

So I took Bregman's advice to consider an alternative to goals. Bregman (a former college classmate pal of mine) suggests thinking in terms of "areas of focus." That is, prioritize important matters but avoid specific targets. More journey, less destination.

And it seems to be working! I decided not to worry about hitting a goal I'd set to complete a chapter draft by the end of the week, and immediately a great weight lifted off my shoulders. But that didn't lead me to shirk the work. On the contrary, I dug into the project with as much gusto and effectiveness as I've had on it.

We'll see whether I continue to be a goal-less wonder-worker. But for now, I'm taking aim at targets.

My goal for 2013 is to put goals in the trash.

Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce. Comment below or email efrauenheim@workforce.com.