The Dangers of Setting Performance Goals

I’m a big fan of setting goals. Just by simply setting a goal, you increase your chances for succeeding. But researchers are now learning that there is also a downside to goals.

An overly narrow focus on a specific domain of performance can certainly enhance your performance in that domain. But at what cost? When there is complexity involved (and isn’t there always complexity?), the specificity of setting a singular performance goal inhibits learning, adapting, and innovating. It narrows our thinking and problem-solving, which can actually impair performance in complex situations where there isn’t always a clear and consistent relationship between an action and an outcome.

For example, in the late 1960s, when the Ford Motor Company was losing market share to foreign competitors, the CEO called for a production of a vehicle that was less than 2000 pounds and $2,000, and available in 1970. Despite the fact that Ford discovered a safety hazard during production, they stuck to the goal. Rather than making the necessary repairs, executives calculated the cost of potential lawsuits instead. The result? Ford Pinto that ignited upon impact and caused 53 deaths. While the goals were met, the originally intended outcome was lost.

That’s not all. Especially when paired with rewards, goals can create a “the ends justify the means” mentality. For example, when Sears, Roebuck and Co. imposed a sales quota on their auto repair staff in the 1990s, this inadvertently encouraged the staff to overcharge customers and complete unnecessary repairs.

To avoid these pitfalls of goals, one solution is to focus on setting learning goals rather than performance goals.

Performance Goal: We are very familiar with these. This type of goal is set based on achieving a positive regard for your competence. This is a goal that, when achieved, makes you look good: a certain dollar amount of sales this quarter, a score on a test or a grade in a class, or a personal record time on your marathon.

Learning Goal: These are somewhat less common. They are about increasing (rather than demonstrating) your competence. They’re less fun, because they require discomfort or even failure.

Tips for setting learning goals rather than performance goals:

  • Don’t assume there is only one way to solve a problem.
  • Generate multiple options for achieving success.
  • Avoid setting goals that cause stress.
  • Don’t fear failure; don’t punish failure.
  • Set behavior goals rather than outcome goals.
  • Focus your energy on doing the right activities rather than thinking about the right results.
  • Rather than setting a goal to improve on something you are already good at, set goals to learn new skills or try new things.

Eva Rykrsmith

Eva Rykrsmith is an organizational psychology practitioner. Her passion lies in bringing a psychology perspective to the business world, with the mission of creating a high-performance environment. Follow her @EvaRykr.

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