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  • Writer's pictureMark Bragg (Braggy)

The Dark Side of Goal Setting

And how to meet the challenge

It is such a fundamental part of business, the setting of goals. It seems so natural, almost automatic. Big hairy audacious goals, stretch goals, goals that are long term and goals for short term.

Most times it will start at the top, the company goals and then cascade down to each function and each individual. We have all become quite adept at the practice, often applying the SMART goals test, ensuring our goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable Realistic and Timely. 

As we do this with our teams and our people individually, there is a certain anticipation of success. We are getting everyone focused, aligned and ready to attack. Potentially there is also a teamwork benefit, a feeling that we are all on the same page, we are in this together. 

The Dark Side 

While this process is designed to motivate people, there is however another side to goal setting that has the potential to do more damage than you might expect.

1.    This means nothing to me.

The first problem comes when people are completely disconnected from the purpose of a goal. In other words, while they might understand the goal, perhaps even nod in agreement, they don’t recognize its significance. It means nothing to them because they don’t understand ‘why’ and they certainly don’t have an answer to what’s in it for me. If goals are disconnected from a higher purpose people become demotivated and are likely to move their focus to something they find more interesting.

2.    We miss our targets every time.

The history of achievement of goals also plays a critical part. If a sales team for example, have missed their targets multiple times, perhaps every quarter or every year, that consistent failure will lead to an expectation of disappointment or worse still, an acceptance of failure.

The chances are the goals being set are unrealistic and are constructed in hope rather than reality. Rather than being motivated by a goal they are often left flat, demotivated.

3.    I can’t see the path.

Setting goals without a clear path to success is another problem. I am reminded of watching a sport coach addressing a team before a big game. The players all intently listen to what the coach has to say. And then the coach says, “Guys we have got to win this game!”

Blank stares around the locker room, all thinking the same thing. “Yes coach, we got that bit, but how?

Setting goals without a clear and concise how makes it hard for folks to ‘buy into’ the goal in the first place.

4.    This is hurting company culture

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, goals can have a negative impact on your organisation’s values and culture.

Goals by their very nature are designed to impact, perhaps even change behaviour. They also have this wonderful ability to focus people on outcomes. When you put those two together you can easily develop a we are going to hit this target no matter what, mentality.

The repercussions of this can be damaging. Folks will break rules, compromise standards, whatever it takes. They will filter reporting on progress, maybe even lie just to appear successful. Then perhaps most damaging of all for organizations, they will try to achieve their goals regardless of the impact on any other part of the organization or anyone else for that matter, even their immediate colleagues. 

Of course, when their goals were set none of this was intended, it’s just a very human response, a desire to be successful.

Meeting the challenge

So, what to do? Here’s a couple of thoughts:

1.    Get buy in.

If you want the goal to be effective, to motivate people, involve them in the setting of the goals. This is not as easy as it sounds. Folks are naturally optimistic in this environment. There will be some who don’t like confrontation or are afraid to admit problems or hate to admit weakness.

Regardless, work on an environment for an open and honest discussion, one where people can talk openly and honestly and genuinely ‘buy in’ to the goal and feel a genuine sense of ownership. Encourage everyone to have a voice.

2.    Answer the 2 BIG questions.

For any goals to resonate and motivate they have to be linked to clear and concise answers to, why this is important and how we are going to be successful. People like to connect to a higher purpose and linking goals to that purpose makes it more likely to stick and resonate for everyone involved.

Goals are also more likely to get traction when they have been broken down into believable steps, particularly big or long-term goals. If people can see a path, identify short term objectives they can reasonably achieve on the journey to delivering the overall goals, it elevates their level of confidence. 

3.    Think about behavioural consequences.

Finally, think carefully about behavioural consequences of your goals. Make it part of the discussion. Reinforce company culture and behavioural standards as they relate to the goals you are setting. A direct black and white outline of what IS and what is NOT acceptable can help.


Goals are critical, essential, but don’t assume that setting goals alone will be enough. How you frame them and manage them within your organization will have a huge bearing on their effectiveness as a motivator rather than a de-motivator.

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