Why a Harvard Study Says Goal Setting Should Have a Health Warning!!

By James Mills, Associate Partner & Mentorship Coach, Lighthouse International

"With great power, comes great responsibility"

- Stan Lee (Former Chairman & President, Marvel Comics)

We may look at legends and admire their incredible ability to bring their visions to life. In fact, the ability to set and achieve goals is at the heart of any successful person. So why is it that a Harvard Business School study suggests that the practice of goal setting should be accompanied with a health warning?!

In the working paper; Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, it's proposed that people and organisations should be careful and aware of how they set goals because of the possible side-effects.

Here are three potential side-effects of 'dangerous' goal-setting and the ways that legends have addressed these in a way that is inspiring, ethical and effective.

1. Negative Effect On Motivation 

Imagine having a goal that you don't simply believe is possible because of not having (or knowing how to acquire) any of the required knowledge, resources or connections? Or what about if you had someone set you this goal that was based on their agenda? How motivated would you feel about working hard towards these goals?

When people don't feel ownership of the achievement of a goal and/or it isn't important enough, then they certainly won't feel motivated!!

Solution: There needs to be a vision and a sense of hope when a goal has been set - people need to feel involved in order to be committed. Incredible things have been achieved because of a compelling vision that unites people around shared values and purpose. Here's a wonderful example from the legendary President of the United States; John F. Kennedy....

2. Promoting Unethical Behaviour

What do you think would happen if our financial security, professional reputation and personal sense of self-worth rested on the achievement of a goal? Would we be willing to lie, cheat or look for short-cuts that are not legal or ethical? Whole organisations have crumbled because of people within an organisation are so fixated on a goal at the expense of everything else.

Solution: Legends lead by example and make tough decisions. Here's a wonderful example of how the CEO of Japan Airlines; Haruka Nishimatsu made his goal the survival of the company and not the increase of his personal income. This meant he decided to sacrifice all his corporate perks in order to show his staff that he was prepared to suffer through the hard times at the company.

3. Compromising Quality & Standards

Have you ever felt rushed and compromised your standards for what you do because of wanting to achieve a certain goal? In the name of increasing what we produce and achieve, we can very easily compromise the standards that we hold.

Solution: Legends pursue excellence and they recognise they can only achieve great things if they put a great deal of care and attention into everything they do. Here's a video of Steve Jobs explaining his views on quality and the philosophy that enabled him to create one of the wealthiest companies in the world today.

The Need To Succeed Responsibly

At the heart of all effective goal-setting is the need to be responsible with the way we set and work towards our goals. Yes, they can be a great tool for providing direction and purpose, but when striving for the achievement of any goal comes at the expense of who and what we value most, then we risk doing more harm than good.

Click here for the full Harvard Business School working paper - Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting.

If you want to learn more about goal-setting, then you may want to learn from 5 of The Most Successful Olympians Ever!

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