Goal Setting – Pitfalls and Benefits

Goal setting is a funny thing. Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve had a long and checkered relationship with it. I’ve gone back and forth, was a big fan, hated it, went back to goal setting again. What is it that fascinates and repels about goal setting? I set out to look at some of the research and found a great meta study by Latham and Locke in 2006. They say

more than 1,000 studies conducted by behavioral scientists on more than 88 different tasks, involving more than 40,000 male and female participants in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America, show that specific high goals are effective in significantly increasing a person’s performance – regardless of the method by which they are set. Assigned goals by a manager, for example, are as effective as self-set or participatively set goals if they are accompanied by logic or a rationale from a manager.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Except the title of the research article where these words appear is “Enhancing the Benefits and Overcoming the Pitfalls of Goal Setting.”

So there are pitfalls, too, and they often do not get talked about. What are some, according to Latham and Locke?

  • When people lack the knowledge and skill to attain a goal, giving them a difficult goal sometimes leads to poorer performance than telling them to do their best
  • A goal can have a detrimental effect on a group’s performance if there is conflict among group members
  • A goal can be detrimental if it is viewed as a threat rather than a challenge
  • Goals can have an adverse effect on risk taking, if failure to attain a specific high goal is punished
  • Paradoxically, goal attainment can become problematic. Past successes quite naturally increase satisfaction. This satisfaction can lead to (a) too much reliance on previously successful strategies and (b) increasingly high self-confidence and the setting of goals that are too high
  • Tying goal attainment to self-esteem can result in a desperate over-commitment
  • Goals can increase a person’s stress, especially if they are challenging and there are 37 goals rather than a reasonable number, such as 3 to 7
  • Employees who reach or exceed challenging goals may be assigned goals for the following year that are impossible to attain

Researchers at Harvard, too, have found that goal setting can become problematic. Specifically, they refer to “stretch goals” — goals that are difficult to attain. On the other hand, they mention that goals that foster learning and mastery can be beneficial. My professional and personal experience certainly bears that out; in fact, I am a big fan of the opposite of stretch goals — small (or even tiny) goals.

What is your experience with goal setting?


LATHAM, G., & LOCKE, E. (2006). Enhancing the Benefits and Overcoming the Pitfalls of Goal Setting Organizational Dynamics, 35 (4), 332-340 DOI: 10.1016/j.orgdyn.2006.08.008

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  • While goals are all well and good, I lean toward them being problematic, as well. Just the word “goal,” at least to me, indicates expect. Now, I know goals and expectations, at times, are necessary; however, the words come off to me as judgmental and heavy-handed. Kind of like the word, “should.” In lieu of goal, I’m much more comfortable with the word, “target.” Again, at least to me, it accomplishes the same purpose without the rigidity. Ah, semantics and psychology.

  • Most of it seems to come down to intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations.

    I think the managers may have been smart enough to get buy in or hook into what people were interested in doing.

    The biggest drawback I see is that the ladder can be against the wrong wall. Eg Apple setting the goal a few years ago of selling more computers (oops, forgot that profit is involved); wanting to do well in that music exam (oops, forgot it was meant to be about making beautiful music).

  • Here is another article about Harvard studying goals (with the great title “Hey Boss – Enough of the Big Hairy Goals”), http://blogs.hbr.org/sutton/2010/06/hey_boss_enough_with_the_big_h.html. They, too, found that small goals work well.

    Evan, I love the image of the ladder and the wall!

    Bill, I’m totally with you regarding the semantics of it. The word “goal” often gives me ambiguous feelings. “Target” is an interesting word. What might be other words?

    • Well, I’d say “laog” is the obvious choice, but it’s kind of tough to pronounce. How ’bout a “mark?”

      • Haha, when I first saw “laog” I thought you were referring to some arcane celtic word 🙂 How about “aim” or “destination”? And if this was German, I’d add “Hauptbahnhof” 🙂

        Really, I think it’s important a) to find a word for this that sits well and b) to be playful with it. The frowning seriousness with which goals are often treated cannot be helpful …

        • That you might like that. Well, for me it’s “target.” Works well for me visually, as well. Great topic…

  • Excellent post! You sure were able to enumerate some of the pitfalls of goal setting. But I think these can be avoided or reduced if done the right way. Most people tend to set so many goals that they don’t even know when and how to start working on it. It’s not how easy or difficult the goal is, we just have to be mindful of our priorities. It’s important to know that nothing can be done simultaneously. Goal setting doesn’t only mean determining what you need to achieve but also to prepare yourself on how you would be able to attain these goals to prevent it in becoming problematic.

    PS: Found another helpful article on Tracking Your Goals, thought I’d share it with you and your readers.

    • Aileen – thank you! Goal tracking is important, especially if the goals aren’t the mini-goals that I talk about in my other post.

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  • I’m an advocate of the process of goal setting, regardless of what it is called. My thought is that corporations and successful teams and individuals would all subscribe to the benefits that accrue from having goals.

    Working in the careers area however it amazes me that many of the exxecutives and middle managers that I deal with would happily participate in corporate strategic planning – in fact would shudder at the thought of not having such a plan. Yet when it comes to their own lives and careers the absence of a plan is remarkable. As James Allen said – All achievements in life are the result of defintely directed thought.


  • Set the practical significance of the target of our life is helpful?have the power to struggle ,we will continuous on target.

  • Rudofl

    I can share a recent mental goal I set for myself:

    My recording hardware was “broken.” I did my internet research, and came across numerous suggestions to fix the problem. Not knowing much about electronic gear I was scared to break my equipment even more.

    I posted my goal to my Entourage notes, to address the problem. It came up as a reminder numerous times, keeping me alerted to doing something about the problem.

    Time and again I researched a good number of forums relating to the problem. Some coached a simple solution using professional sprays that help facilitate electrical conductivity. Some respondents were hoping to find similar products or cheaper offers of the same product. Why? asked the answer giver. This led me to believe that there is a reason professionals use this particular spray to “repair” equipment.

    I called several local shops to see if they might fix it for me. One pro shop claimed it was totally broken, unfixable (over the phone.) Eventually I decided to take the $75 risk and buy all the products required.

    Keeping the online manuals open and grounding myself with a wire I opened my electronic device and took several good looks at it, comparing what I saw with the instructions.

    I squirted far too much spray in there, jostled the plug-ins in and out 6 times, as directed. Waited a few hours for it all to dry, recoated with another product and turned it on. It worked.

    I probably saved myself about $250 dollars.

    • What is Entourage Notes? Is it some sort of reminder system?

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  • Craig Brown

    I think of it as ‘problem solving’ rather than ‘goal setting’ as a problem is usually real and harms you in some way while you’re not solving it.
    Otherwise one may be wasting time/effort chasing things that are beside the point.
    A good example was how I wasted a lot of effort trying to earn a black-belt when I was younger: The real problem I was trying to solve was to scare off other boys at high-school who wanted to play alpha-male at my expense. So when that problem was solved early on (sans back-belt) I no longer had any real reason to continue training; it was a false goal and a chore.

  • Anthony – as someone with many years of experience in career counselling, I agree – it’s fascinating and sad to watch how many of us forget all the skills and intelligence that we have displayed at work when we are on the job hunt. I’d like to share this with you, though: For a few years I worked in positions where it was mandated that we build an action plan (i.e. set goals) with our clients. Of the hundreds of clients who found a job, I’d say maybe 5 successfully used formal setting.

    Craig – that’s an interesting comment. Personally and in my work, I have moved away from the concept of solving problems, and towards creating solutions and opportunities. I find that if I focus too much on the problem, whatever I do about them can be temporary. Having said that, I otherwise agree with what you say. E.g. it’s helpful to concentrate on what it is that WE want to achieve (e.g. no more bullying) rather than on what others who can help us with getting there (e.g. a martial arts school) want us to achieve (e.g. getting a black belt). This is a common problem in counselling, too.

  • Very interesting post – especially relevant as we seem to be climbing out of the recession. Many organizations are dusting off their goal setting gear and preparing for better results.

    The initialism “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) popularized by Collins and Porras started out as a 10 to 20 year compelling vision used to align and motivate the organization.

    I support organizational BHAGs – these can be energizing and serve an essential purpose in retaining the best talent – however individual contributor goals need to be scaled appropriately.

    The “go big or go home” mentality gives goal setting a bad name.

    • Thanks for your comment. There was a post on the Harvard blog a little while ago about BHAGs: http://blogs.hbr.org/sutton/2010/06/hey_boss_enough_with_the_big_h.html – did you read it? He cites three things that recommend against BHAGs:

      # They are strategically obvious.
      # They’re too blunt to provide daily guidance — or satisfaction.
      # They’re too daunting.

      Btw, without having delved too deeply into this, I have my doubts about the first two points, especially the first one. Many employees are not aware of, or interested or invested in the big vision, and I think it’s important to spell it out. Would like to hear your opinion on this, SWrightBoucher!

      • Hi Isabella, I hadn’t read that one. Thanks for providing the link.

        I really do believe in BHAGs. In fact, I wouldn’t care to work in an organization without them as it would feel rutterless. I think the success or failure of BHAGs is directly commensurate with senior and middle management’s ability to scale down – or put a sharp point – on the bigger, overall vision. In the HBR article the CEO was savvy enough to see that this was missing and was able to impart this skill to his team. Some might call this “chunking down” – others might cite the old adage asking how do you eat an elephant – one bite at a time.

        There’s another element to goal setting that I find fascinating and it has to do with our shift to knowledge work. We’re all dealing with more and more communications on a daily basis, we have easy access to the internet, even people in parks have a mobile phone on one ear… I believe goals are absolutely essential in helping people understand when and how to say no to the endless distractions and requests of our time. With no goals our days can easily fill with busy work.

        I’d love to know your thoughts on that.

    • I agree altogether, I came across this concept of BHAG sometime back and the organization I work for seems not interested, I will use this information to try and get my point through. Thanks once again

  • Isabella,

    The research on goal setting shows that proximal goals – small goals that can be achieved in the short term – have many positive effects and none of the negative effects of the stretch goals you mentioned above.

    Proximal goals build self efficacy, increase intrinsic interest an activity and improve motivation and productivity.

    I describe one of the studies that show how we can all use proximal goals to improve your lives at this post.

    Proximal Goals

  • Excellent post. I really liked what you sad about “Goals can increase a person’s stress, especially if they are challenging and there are 37 goals rather than a reasonable number, such as 3 to 7”

    I find this to most troubling when I have a huge list of goals or tasks that I need to accomplish…and a short time to complete them in.

    It’s in that moment that I need to sort my goals and tasks by not only what’s most important but also what’s doable, as well as looking at the big picture. I’m always asking myself…Are these helping me towards becoming financially free or just adding more busy work.

    Ken Pickard
    The Network Dad

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  • Well, my stance is that if goal setting increases stress, then goal setting is good, because we all need stress! Really? Well, how else would I get motivated to get out of bed? Like, oh my, if I don’t get out of bed, I might starve! *Stress* OK, I’ll rise. Or: oh my, if I stay in bed, I don’t get to achieve my goal of buying a new house. OK, I’ll rise because the thought of staying here stresses me! We can use a little goal setting pressure to our good. I expect to achieve every goal I set every time, on time. Perhaps the people who really stress out are the ones with too little belief in themselves?

  • David Sneen

    True goals are powerful, and like anything powerful, can be misused. When a goal is set for you-or you set it and you don’t truly know the how, it can be extremely frustrating. I am reminded of an Amway rally in the 80s-everyone was fired up and then we left… and soon faced the unanswered question, “How do we do it?”

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  • Thanks for good Article, Yes goal is one kind of dream and it’s the light to tell you where should go and what should do to fulfill the goal.

Isabella Mori

Isabella Mori is a psychotherapist in private practice in Vancouver. She has been working in the field of mental health, counseling, psychotherapy and movement therapy for 18 years.

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