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The Dual Nature of Goals

There is a dual nature to goals.  Setting goals can be immensely motivating, but there is a fine line between motivation and counter-productivity that rarely gets discussed. Are your goals propelling you forward or holding you back? Let’s break it down.

Traditional research has shown that challenging goals can fuel our efforts and push us to go farther.  Yet, we also see the empty gyms after a few months into the new year.  Fishbach and Choi’s research warns us that an unwavering focus on challenging goals can actually spoil the journey, making us more likely to drop out early because of the pressure and obsession with the goal rather than the process itself.

How about the workplace? This Harvard Business Review article talks about the systematic side effects of over-prescribing goal-setting at work.  The authors argue that goal-setting by managers can backfire, harm performance, and strain interpersonal relationships.

Examples of goal-setting gone wrong at companies:

  • When there are too many goals
  • When the time horizon is off (too short-sighted)
  • When they encourage too much risk-taking
  • When they lead to an over-focus on threats and failure (diminished enjoyment and intrinsic motivation)
  • When the execution isn’t thought through

How can goals be beneficial?

  • When goals are used as prescription medicine versus over-the-counter medicine (not over-prescribed but rather thoughtfully and powerfully designed)
  • Whey they come from a place of possibilities rather than fear or threats
  • When they generate initial momentum to catapult a person or team into action
  • When the execution is clear while staying flexible enough to allow for curiosity and adaptation

Take-Away? Goals are like powerful tow ropes, capable of jump-starting great efforts, yet equally capable of dragging us off course. The key is to hold onto them lightly, leveraging their motivation without letting them dictate our journey. Success lies not just in setting goals but in navigating the waters with an open, curious and adaptable approach.

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