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Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting by Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman

Executive Overview Goal setting is one of the most replicated and influential paradigms in the management literature. Hundreds of studies conducted in numerous countries and contexts have consistently demonstrated that setting specific, challenging goals can powerfully drive behavior and boost performance. Advocates of goal setting have had a substantial impact on research, management education, and management practice. In this article, we argue that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects nongoal areas, distorted risk preferences, a rise in unethical behavior, inhibited learning, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision. We offer a warning label to accompany the practice of setting goals.

F or decades, goal setting has been promoted as a panacea for improving employee motivation and performance in organizations. Across hun-

dreds of experiments, dozens of tasks, and thou- sands of participants on four continents, the re- sults are clear (Locke & Latham, 1990): Compared to vague, easy goals (e.g., “Do your best”), specific, challenging goals boost perfor- mance. In a review of four decades of goal-setting research, Locke and Latham (2006, p. 265) claimed, “So long as a person is committed to the goal, has the requisite ability to attain it, and does not have conflicting goals, there is a positive, linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance.”

In this article, however, we contend that goal setting has been overprescribed. In particular, we

argue that goal setting has powerful and predict- able side effects. Rather than being offered as an “over-the-counter” salve for boosting perfor- mance, goal setting should be prescribed selec- tively, presented with a warning label, and closely monitored.

Emblematic Examples of Goals Gone Wild

H ere are just a few examples of the hazards of indiscriminate goal setting. First, consider Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s experience with

goal setting in the early 1990s. Sears set sales goals for its auto repair staff of $147/hour. This specific, challenging goal prompted staff to overcharge for work and to complete unnecessary repairs on a companywide basis (Dishneau, 1992). Ultimately, Sears Chairman Edward Brennan acknowledged

Lisa D. Ordóñez (lordonez@u.arizona.edu) is a Professor at Eller College of Management, University of Arizona. * Maurice E. Schweitzer (schweitzer@wharton.upenn.edu) is an Associate Professor at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Adam D. Galinsky (agalinsky@kellogg.northwestern.edu) is a Professor at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. Max H. Bazerman (mbazerman@hbs.edu) is a Professor at Harvard Business School, Harvard University.

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that goal setting had motivated employees to de- ceive customers. Sears’ “goal setting process for service advisers created an environment where mistakes did occur,” Brennan admitted (Disheau, 1992).

In the late 1990s, specific, challenging goals fueled energy-trading company Enron’s rapid fi- nancial success. Ackman (2002) compared En- ron’s incentive system to “paying a salesman a commission based on the volume of sales and letting him set the price of goods sold.” Even during Enron’s final days, Enron executives were rewarded with large bonuses for meeting specific revenue goals. In sum, “Enron executives were meeting their goals, but they were the wrong goals,” according to employee compensation ex- pert Solange Charas (Ackman, 2002). By focusing on revenue rather than profit, Enron executives drove the company into the ground.

In the late 1960s, the Ford Motor Company was losing market share to foreign competitors that were selling small, fuel-efficient cars. CEO Lee Iacocca announced the specific, challenging goal of producing a new car that would be “under 2,000 pounds and under $2,000” and would be available for purchase in 1970. This goal, coupled with a tight deadline, meant that many levels of management signed off on unperformed safety checks to expedite the development of the car— the Ford Pinto. One omitted safety check con- cerned the fuel tank, which was located behind the rear axle in less than 10 inches of crush space. Lawsuits later revealed what Ford should have corrected in its design process: The Pinto could ignite on impact. Investigations revealed that af- ter Ford finally discovered the hazard, executives remained committed to their goal and instead of repairing the faulty design, calculated that the costs of lawsuits associated with Pinto fires (which in- volved 53 deaths and many injuries) would be less than the cost of fixing the design. In this case, the specific, challenging goals were met (speed to mar- ket, fuel efficiency, and cost) at the expense of other important features that were not specified (safety, ethical behavior, and company reputation).

As these disasters suggest, the harmful effects of goal setting have received far too little attention in the management literature. Although prior

work has acknowledged “pitfalls” of goal setting (Latham & Locke, 2006), we argue that the harm- ful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior reviews of goal setting have acknowledged. First, we begin by describing the systematic and predictable ways in which goal setting harms organizations. We describe how the use of goal setting can degrade employee perfor- mance by narrowing focus to neglect important but nonspecified goals, motivating risky and unethical behaviors, inhibiting learning, corroding organiza- tional culture, and reducing intrinsic motivation. We argue that, in many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.

Second, we offer a warning label to guide the use of goal setting. We identify specific questions managers should ask in order to ascertain whether the harmful effects of goal setting outweigh the potential benefits.

Third, we call for further study of the adverse consequences of goal setting. Given the wide- spread endorsement and use of goal setting, we argue that its harmful effects deserve additional scholarly and managerial attention.

How Goals Go Wild

A dvocates of goal setting argue that for goals to be successful, they should be specific and chal- lenging. Countless studies (see Locke &

Latham, 2002, 2006) find that specific, challeng- ing goals motivate performance far better than “do your best” exhortations. According to these find- ings, specific goals provide clear, unambiguous, and objective means for evaluating employee perfor- mance. Specific goals focus people’s attention; lack- ing a specific goal, employee attention may be dis- persed 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, challenging goals can pro- duce positive results, we argue that it is often these same characteristics that cause goals to “go wild.”

When Goals Are Too Specific

As research has shown, goals focus attention. Un- fortunately, goals can focus attention so narrowly that people overlook other important features of a

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task. Consider Simons and Chabris’ (1999; Neis- ser, 1979) well-known study of inattentional blindness. The researchers asked participants to watch a video in which two groups of players pass basketballs. One group wears white shirts; the other group wears dark shirts. Given the task of counting basketball passes among people wearing only white shirts, people unconsciously block out the black-shirted individuals. As a result of this narrow focus, most participants fail to notice when a man wearing a black gorilla suit saunters into the middle of the screen, pounds his chest, and walks off screen. Intense concentration on the counting task causes people to overlook a striking element of their visual world. This focusing prob- lem has broad application (Bazerman & Chugh, 2006) and direct relevance to goal setting.

Narrow Goals

With goals, people narrow their focus. This in- tense focus can blind people to important issues that appear unrelated to the goal (as in the case of Ford employees who overlooked safety testing to rush the Pinto to market). The tendency to focus too narrowly on goals is compounded when man- agers chart the wrong course by setting the wrong goal (e.g., setting revenue rather than profit goals at Enron).

Setting appropriate goals is a difficult, intricate process. Suppose that a university department bases tenure decisions primarily on the number of articles professors publish. This goal will motivate professors to accomplish the narrow objective of publishing articles. Other important objectives, however, such as research impact, teaching, and service, may suffer. 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.

Staw and Boettger (1990) documented the haz- ards of narrow focus fostered by goals in a clever study. They asked students to proofread a para- graph that contained both grammatical and bla- tant content errors. The paragraph was purport- edly going to be used in a brochure promoting the business college. The authors found that individ- uals 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. Tenbrunsel, Wade-Benzoni, Messick, and Bazerman (2000) made a related point. They argued that standards, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards on pollution, too often focus compliance on specific, measurable goals at the expense of the overall mission of protecting the environment.

When managers set targets for specific dimen- sions of a problem, they often fail to anticipate the broader results of their directives. Goals “inform the individual about what behavior is valued and appropriate” (Staw & Boettger, 1990, p. 555). The very presence of goals may lead employees to focus myopically on short-term gains and lose sight of the potential devastating long-term effects on the organization.

Too Many Goals

A related problem occurs when employees pursue multiple goals at one time. Shah, Friedman, and Kruglanski (2002) demonstrated that individuals with multiple goals are prone to concentrate on only one goal. Related research suggests that some types of goals are more likely to be ignored than others. In a stock selection task, Gilliland and Landis (1992) gave participants both quality goals and quantity goals. When quantity and quality goals were both difficult, participants sacrificed quality to meet the quantity goals. Goals that are easier to achieve and measure (such as quantity) may be given more attention than other goals (such as quality) in a multigoal situation.

Inappropriate Time Horizon

Even if goals are set on the right attribute, the time horizon may be inappropriate. For example, goals that emphasize immediate performance (e.g., this quarter’s profits) prompt managers to engage in myopic, short-term behavior that harms the organi- zation in the long run. Cheng, Subramanyam, and Zhang (2005) showed that firms that issued quarterly earnings reports frequently tended to meet or beat analyst expectations, but also tended to invest less in research and development. The effort to meet short- term targets occurred at the expense of long-term growth. Some companies are learning from these

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mistakes; Coca-Cola announced in 2002 that it would cease issuing quarterly earnings guidance and provide more information about progress on long- term objectives.

The time horizon problem is related to the notion that goals can lead people to perceive their goals as ceilings rather than floors for perfor- mance. Just as the pigeons in the Skinner exper- iments demonstrated “post-pellet pause” (a state of inactivity after their pecking produced the de- sired pellet of food), once a goal is achieved peo- ple pause, relax, and rest. For example, a salesper- son, after meeting her monthly sales quota, may spend the rest of the month playing golf rather than working on new sales leads. An excellent example of this problem comes from a study of New York City cab drivers. This study answered the age-old question of why it is so hard to get a cab on a rainy day (Camerer, Babcock, Loewen- stein, & Thaler, 1997). Most people blame de- mand: More people hail cabs when it is raining than when the weather is clear. But as it turns out, supply is another important culprit. Cabs start disappearing more quickly from Manhattan streets on rainy days than on sunny days. Why? Because of the specific daily goal most cab drivers set: to earn double the amount it costs them to rent their cabs for a 12-hour shift. On rainy days, cabbies make money more quickly than on sunny days (because demand is indeed higher), hit their daily goal sooner, and go home (the problem of goals as ceilings). This finding flies in the face of the economic tenet of wage elasticity, which predicts that people should work more hours on days when they can earn more money and less on days when they earn less. If Manhattan taxi drivers used a longer time horizon (perhaps weekly or monthly), 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, decrease the overall time they spend working, and improve the welfare of drenched New Yorkers.

When Goals Are Too Challenging

Proponents of goal setting claim that a positive linear relationship exists between the difficulty of a goal and employee performance. Specifically, they argue that goals should be set at the most

challenging level possible to inspire effort, com- mitment, and performance— but should not be so challenging that employees see no point in trying. This logic makes intuitive sense, but stretch goals also cause serious side effects, shifting risk atti- tudes, promoting unethical behavior, and trigger- ing the psychological costs of goal failure.

Risk Taking

As prior work conjectured (Knight, Durham, & Locke, 2001; Neale & Bazerman, 1985) and re- cent work has demonstrated (Larrick, Heath, & Wu, in press), goal setting distorts risk prefer- ences. Larrick et al. (in press) demonstrated that people motivated by specific, challenging goals adopt riskier strategies and choose riskier gambles than do those with less challenging or vague goals.

Related work has found that goals harm nego- tiation performance by increasing risky behavior. Negotiators with goals are more likely to reach an inefficient impasse (i.e., failure to reach a profit- able agreement) than are negotiators who lack goals (Galinsky, Mussweiler, & Medvec, 2002; Neale & Bazerman, 1985). For example, Galinsky et al. (2002) found that stretch goals increased the number of impasses, and Larrick et al. (in press) found that goals prompted participants to make larger demands that in turn destroyed value. It is also quite easy to imagine that a negotiator who has obtained concessions sufficient to reach his goal will accept the agreement on the table, even if the value-maximizing strategy would be to con- tinue the negotiation process. Clearly, in some domains, goal setting can significantly harm per- formance rather than promoting better outcomes.

An excessive focus on goals may have prompted the risk-taking behavior that lies at the root of many real-world disasters. The collapse of Continental Illinois Bank provides an example with striking parallels to the collapse of Enron and the financial crisis of 2008. In 1976, when Con- tinental was the ninth-largest bank in the United States, Continental’s chairman announced that within five years, the magnitude of the bank’s lending would match that of any other bank. To reach this stretch goal, the bank shifted its strat- egy from conservative corporate financing toward aggressive pursuit of borrowers. Continental al-

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lowed officers to buy loans made by smaller banks that had invested heavily in very risky loans. Continental would have become the seventh- largest U.S. bank if its borrowers had been able to repay their loans; instead, following massive loan defaults, the government had to bail out the bank.

In other domains, such as the design process for the Ford Pinto, the perceptual blinders of narrow and challenging goals have had fatal conse- quences. Kayes (2006) cited the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster in which eight climbers died due to the decisions of the two team leaders as an example of “destructive goal pursuit.” On Mt. Everest, world- class high-altitude guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer identified so closely with the goal of reach- ing the summit that they made risky decisions that led to their own and six of their clients’ deaths. Kayes identified warning signs of leaders who have become excessively fixated on goals: expressing nar- rowly defined goals, associating goals with destiny, expressing an idealized future, offering goal-driven justifications, facing public expectations, and at- tempting to engage in face-saving behavior.

Unethical Behavior

Another serious way goal setting can damage or- ganizations is by promoting unethical behavior. At Sears’ automotive unit, employees charged cus- tomers for unnecessary repairs in order to meet specific, challenging goals. In the late 1980s, Mi- niscribe employees shipped actual bricks to cus- tomers instead of disk drives to meet shipping targets. And in 1993, Bausch and Lomb employ- ees falsified financial statements to meet earnings goals. In each of these cases, specific, challenging goals motivated employees to engage in unethical behavior.

Goal setting has been promoted as a powerful motivational tool, but substantial evidence dem- onstrates that in addition to motivating construc- tive effort, goal setting can induce unethical behavior. Surprisingly little research in the goal- setting literature has examined what people might do when they have the opportunity to misrepre- sent their performance or cheat to attain a goal. One of the few studies that looked for a direct link between goal setting and cheating found that par- ticipants were more likely to misrepresent their

performance level when they had a specific, chal- lenging goal than when they did not, especially when their actual performance level fell just short of reaching the goal (Schweitzer, Ordóñez, & Douma, 2004). Similarly, when senior manage- ment gives lawyers and consultants specific, chal- lenging goals for billable hours, they may bill clients for hours they never worked.

Goal setting can promote two different types of cheating behavior. First, when motivated by a goal, people may choose to use unethical methods to reach it. For example, at Sears, mechanics told customers that they needed unnecessary repairs and then performed and charged them for this unneeded work. Second, goal setting can motivate people to misrepresent their performance level—in other words, to report that they met a goal when in fact they fell short. For example, employees at Bausch and Lomb who were driven to reach sales targets reported sales that never took place.

Goal setting, of course, is not the only cause of employee unethical behavior, but it is certainly an important, understudied ingredient. A number of factors serve as catalysts in the relationship be- tween goal setting and cheating: lax oversight, financial incentives for meeting performance tar- gets (Jensen, 2003; Schweitzer et al., 2004), and organizational cultures with a weak commitment to ethics.

The interplay between organizational culture and goal setting is particularly important. An eth- ical organizational culture can rein in the harmful effects of goal setting, but at the same time, the use of goals can influence organizational culture. Specifically, the use of goal setting, like “manage- ment by objectives,” creates a focus on ends rather than means. Barsky (2007) argued that goal set- ting impedes ethical decision making by making it harder for employees to recognize ethical issues and easier for them to rationalize unethical behav- ior. Given that small actions within an organiza- tion can have broad implications for organiza- tional culture (Fleming & Zyglidopoulos, 2008), we postulate that aggressive goal setting within an organization increases the likelihood of creating an organizational climate ripe for unethical behavior. That is, not only does goal setting directly moti- vate unethical behavior, but its introduction may

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also motivate unethical behavior indirectly by subtly altering an organization’s culture. In sum, although many factors contribute to unethical be- havior, the point cannot be overstated: Goal set- ting motivates unethical behavior.

Dissatisfaction and the Psychological Consequences of Goal Failure

One problem embedded in stretch goals is the possibility that the goal may not be reached. In negotiations, for example, challenging goals can increase negotiation and task performance but decrease satisfaction with high-quality outcomes (Galinsky et al., 2002; Garland, 1983). These decreases in satisfaction influence how people view themselves and have important conse- quences for future behavior. Mussweiler and Strack (2000) found that giving someone a chal- lenging goal rather than an easy goal on an atten- tion task or an intelligence test improved per- formance but left people questioning their concentration abilities and overall intelligence. These goal-induced reductions in self-efficacy can be highly detrimental, because perceptions of self- efficacy are a key predictor of task engagement, commitment, and effort (Bandura, 1977).

Goals, Learning, and Cooperation

To adapt to a competitive landscape, organiza- tions need employees who are able to learn and collaborate with their colleagues. Goals can in- hibit both learning and cooperation.

Goals Inhibit Learning

When individuals face a complex task, specific, challenging goals may inhibit learning from expe- rience and degrade performance compared to ex- hortations to “do your best” (Cervone, Jiwani, & Wood, 1991; Earley, Connolly, & Ekegren, 1989; Wood, Bandura, & Bailey, 1990). An individual who is narrowly focused on a performance goal will be less likely to try alternative methods that could help her learn how to perform a task. As an example of this phenomenon, Locke and Latham (2002) described an air traffic controller simula- tion in which the performance goal interfered with learning in this complex domain (Kanfer & Ackerman, 1989). Overall, the narrow focus of

specific goals can inspire performance but prevent learning.

Locke and Latham recommended that “learn- ing goals” be used in complex situations rather than “performance goals.” In practice, however, managers may have trouble determining when a task is complex enough to warrant a learning rather than a performance goal. In many changing business environments, perhaps learning goals should be the norm. Even when tasks are complex enough to clearly warrant learning goals, manag- ers face the challenge of identifying the specific, challenging goal levels for learning objectives. Setting the right goals is itself a challenging affair.

Goals Create a Culture of Competition

Organizations that rely heavily on goal setting may erode the foundation of cooperation that holds groups together. Arrow (1973) argued that an exclu- sive 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 co- workers (Wright, George, Farnsworth, & McMahan, 1993). Goals may promote competition rather than cooperation and ultimately lower overall perfor- mance (Mitchell & Silver, 1990).

When Goals Harm Motivation Itself

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

This problem is important, because managers are likely to overvalue and overuse goals. Although peo- ple recognize the importance of intrinsic rewards in motivating themselves, people exaggerate the im- portance of extrinsic rewards in motivating others (Heath, 1999). In short, managers may think that others need to be motivated by specific, challenging goals far more often than they actually do.

By setting goals, managers may create a hedonic treadmill in which employees are motivated by ex-

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ternal means (e.g., goals and rewards) and not by the intrinsic value of the job itself (Deci, 1971, 1975).

Can We Set the Right Goal? The Problem of Calibration

P roponents of goal setting have long champi- oned the simplicity of its implementation and the efficiency of its effects. In practice, how-

ever, setting goals is a challenging process, espe- cially in novel settings.

Goal setting can become problematic when the same goal is applied to many different people. Given the variability of performance on any given task, any standard goal set for a group of people will vary in difficulty for individual members; thus, the goal will simultaneously be too easy for some and too difficult for others. Conversely, idiosyncratically tailoring goals to each individual can lead to charges of un- fairness. This has important implications, because employee perceptions of whether rewards fairly match effort and performance can be one of the best predictors of commitment and motivation (Cropan- zano, Byrne, Bobocel, & Rupp, 2001; Walster, Wal- ster, & Berscheid, 1978). For example, salary dispar- ities between executives and lower-level managers predict the organizational exodus of underpaid man- agers (Wade, O’Reilly, & Pollock, 2006). Both broad-based goals and idiosyncratic goals can lead to problems.

Perverse incentives can also make goal setting politically and practically problematic. When reach- ing preset goals matters more than absolute perfor- mance, self-interested individuals can strategically set (or guide their managers to set) easy-to-meet goals. By lowering the bar, they procure valuable rewards and accolades. Company executives often choose to manage expectations rather than maxi- mize earnings (Bartov, Givoly, & Hayn, 2002). In some cases, managers set a combination of goals that, in aggregate, appears rational, but is in fact not constructive. For example, consider a self-interested CEO who receives a bonus for hitting targets. This CEO may set a mix of easy goals (that she is sure to meet) and “what the hell” difficult goals (that she does not plan to meet). On average, the goal levels may seem appropriate, but this mix of goals may generously reward the CEO (when she meets the

easy goals) without motivating any additional effort when the goals are difficult. In reality, CEOs (and many Wall Street executives) face asymmetric re- wards—a large bonus for meeting the goal in one year, but no fear of having to return a large bonus the next year for underperforming.

Getting It Right: Harness the Power of Goals

T here are many ways in which goals go wild: They can narrow focus, motivate risk-taking, lure people into unethical behavior, inhibit

learning, increase competition, and decrease in- trinsic motivation. At the same time, goals can inspire employees and improve performance. How, then, should we prescribe the use of goal setting? Which systematic side effects of goal set- ting should we most closely monitor, and how can we minimize the side effects?

Just as doctors prescribe drugs selectively, mindful of interactions and adverse reactions, so too should managers carefully prescribe goals. To do so, managers must consider—and scholars must study—the complex interplay between goal set- ting and organizational contexts, as well as the need for safeguards and monitoring.

According to General Electric’s Steve Kerr, an expert in reward and measurement systems, “most organizations don’t have a clue how to manage ‘stretch goals’ ” (Sherman, 1995). He advises man- agers to avoid setting goals that increase employee stress, to refrain from punishing failure, and to provide the tools employees need to meet ambi- tious goals. Integrating these ideas, we urge man- agers to think carefully about whether goals are necessary, and, if so, about how to implement a goal-setting system. In particular, we encourage managers to ask themselves the questions listed in Table 1 when considering the use of goals.

This cautious approach to setting goals is con- sistent with King and Burton’s (2003, pp. 63– 64) claim that goals should be used only in the nar- rowest of circumstances:

The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other; and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain.

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After answering the questions in Table 1 and con- sidering this advice, many managers may conclude that goals are not the best way to motivate their employees. At a minimum, we recommend that managers who use goals do so with great caution.

Directions for Future Research

W hy has prior research largely ignored the harmful effects of setting goals? Part of the problem stems from the methodological

prism scholars have used to study goal setting. Most research, whether it occurs in the lab or in the field, has been conducted in simple, well-specified domains with well-specified performance measures such as the number of anagrams completed (e.g., Vance & Colella, 1990), the amount of electricity used (Becker, 1978), or the number of sales com- pleted (Mann, Samson, & Dow, 1998).

Although all four authors of this article are enthusiastic supporters of lab research, we argue that goals cause the most harm in complex, nat- ural settings when outcomes are interdependent, monitoring is difficult, and cheating is possible.

When scholars have recognized harmful effects of goals, these effects have been characterized as aberrations that could be addressed with simple solutions and relatively little effort. Latham and Locke (2006) listed ten pitfalls of goal setting, such as conflict between group members, task complexity, and financial incentives. For each pitfall, the authors suggested simple (and often untested) solutions. For example, noting that dis- honest means could be used to earn financial rewards tied to goals, they suggested that an orga- nization establish “control systems,” that the CEO should model an ethical culture, and that offend-

Table 1 Ten Questions to Ask Before Setting Goals

Question to ask before setting goals Why is this important to ask? Possible remediation Are the goals too specific? Narrow goals can blind people to important aspects

of a problem. Be sure that goals are comprehensive and include all of the critical components for firm success (e.g., quantity and quality).

Are the goals too challenging? What will happen if goals are not met? How will individual employees and outcomes be evaluated? Will failure harm motivation and self-efficacy?

Provide skills and training to enable employees to reach goals. Avoid harsh punishment for failure to reach a goal.

Who sets the goals? People will become more committed to goals they help to set. At the same time, people may be tempted to set easy-to-reach goals.

Allow transparency in the goal-setting process and involve more than one person or unit.

Is the time horizon appropriate? Short-term goals may harm long-term performance.

Be sure that short-term efforts to reach a goal do not harm investment in long-term outcomes.

How might goals influence risk taking? Unmet goals may induce risk taking. Be sure to articulate acceptable levels of risk. How might goals motivate unethical behavior?

Goals narrow focus. Employees with goals are less likely to recognize ethical issues, and more likely to rationalize their unethical behavior.

Multiple safeguards may be necessary to ensure ethical behavior while attaining goals (e.g., leaders as exemplars of ethical behavior, making the costs of cheating far greater than the benefit, strong oversight).

Can goals be idiosyncratically tailored for individual abilities and circumstances while preserving fairness?

Individual differences may make standardized goals inappropriate, yet unequal goals may be unfair.

If possible, strive to set goals that use common standards and account for individual variation.

How will goals influence organizational culture?

Individual goals may harm cooperation and corrode organizational culture.

If cooperation is essential, consider setting team-based rather than individual goals.Think carefully about the values that the specific, challenging goals convey.

Are individuals intrinsically motivated? Goal setting can harm intrinsic motivation. Assess intrinsic motivation and avoid setting goals when intrinsic motivation is high.

What type of goal (performance or learning) is most appropriate given the ultimate objectives of the organization?

By focusing on performance goals, employees may fail to search for better strategies and fail to learn.

In complex, changing environments, learning goals may be more effective than performance goals.

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ing employees “should be fired regardless of any revenue streams they generate or costs they reduce” (p. 337). Recent corporate ethics scandals suggest that this advice may be difficult to follow. Further, as Barsky’s model (2007) of the ethical implications of organizational goal setting implies, ethical infrac- tions are not simply a by-product of a few “bad apple” employees, but a systematic result of setting specific, challenging goals; similarly, Jensen (2003) contended that lying and cheating are by-products of connecting rewards to goal achievement.

How did this discrepancy between the goal- setting literature and the wild world of actual organizations develop? We argue that researchers (with the goal of publishing) followed a set of paradigmatic paths that easily provided a practi- cal, replicable set of evidence on goal setting. As Wason (1960) demonstrated long ago, people (in- cluding researchers) tend to seek confirmatory evidence and fail to search for disconfirmation. The relatively few studies that have directly chal- lenged the conventional wisdom on goal setting (Schweitzer et al., 2004; Staw & Boettger, 1990) have been systematically ignored in reviews of goal setting authored by goal-setting advocates (e.g., Locke & Latham, 2006), even when they consider the pitfalls of goals.

Like the participants in goal-setting studies themselves, goal-setting advocates have met their specific, challenging goal of becoming publishing juggernauts, at the expense of the broader objec- tives of providing scientific rigor and sound man- agerial advice. We advocate a new generation of goal-setting research that correctly identifies broader objectives and carefully balances the in- spirational and insidious effects of setting goals.


F or decades, scholars have prescribed goal set- ting as an all-purpose remedy for employee mo- tivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a

benign, over-the-counter treatment for students of management, experts need to conceptualize goal set- ting as a prescription-strength medication that re- quires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision. Given the sway of goal setting on intellectual pursuits in management, we

call for a more self-critical and less self-congratula- tory approach to the study of goal setting.


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