Goals: Be careful what you work for

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It’s the start of another new year. People take stock of how things went and how they’d like things to be different. Some make resolutions. Others make goals. There’s scientific evidence that goals are powerful stuff.

Gary Latham and Edwin Locke have been researching goals and goal-setting for decades. In 2002, they published an article in American Psychologist where they identified three ways that goals can help you perform better.

Setting goals forces you to make choices. Setting goals gives you energy. And setting goals makes you more persistent. But, as with just about everything else in life, goals have a downside. If you’re not careful, your goals will get you.

Your Goal Will Get You If What You Get Is Not What You Expect

Karen was a young friend of mine who wanted to climb the org chart in her company. She figured out that the next step for her was to get promoted from her analyst position to a manager’s job.

Getting promoted was Karen’s goal. So, she planned her activities to make herself more likely to get promoted. She worked hard and got great reviews. She got coaching on how to do well in the assessment center that her company used for selecting people to become managers. And she got promoted.

It took Karen less than a day to realize that she had made a horrid mistake. She loved her work as an analyst, but she couldn’t do it much as a manager. She loved being a star, but being a good manager meant that she had to step back for the good of the team. And she really didn’t like all the messy personal things she had to deal with.

Karen achieved her goal, but the goal wasn’t what she thought it would be. She set her goal based on what Frederick Herzberg called hygiene factors. They’re things like pay and prestige and benefits. The problem is that they don’t motivate you for long. Once you have them, the magic is gone.

Karen should have analyzed the work she would do as a manager and then decide whether that was a good goal. It’s a common mistake.

It’s easy to set a goal for something that looks good but skimp on the analysis of what it will actually mean for you. Don’t let your goal get you. Do some hard, thoughtful analysis of what will change when you achieve your goal.

Your Goal Will Get You When You Use the End to Justify the Means

You don’t have to look far for examples of this. Think about men and women at Wells Fargo, who defrauded customers and set up fake accounts so they could make their numbers. Think about teachers who manipulated standardized test results to get the award someone promised them.

A big sales goal wasn’t the problem. Neither was using standardized tests to grade teacher performance. The problem was that those people at Wells Fargo and those teachers decided that achieving the goal was more important than ethical behavior.

There’s one way to keep your goal from getting you this way. Be on guard for the temptation to do something to achieve your goal that makes your stomach turn over. When you hear words like “no matter what it takes” or “I don’t care how you do it,” beware. You may face a choice between doing the wrong thing and not making your goal.

Your Goal Can Get You When It Becomes All-Consuming

It’s easy to get swept up in the thrill of the chase after a goal. You work just a little harder and just a few more hours. You start to forego things you enjoy so you can improve the odds of achieving your goal. Sometimes that’s appropriate. Sometimes you should to go all in on something for a limited time. But if a goal becomes the ruler of your life, it’s a bad thing.

This can be hard to recognize. Your goal may be important. The people around you who love you seem to understand. After all, they’re not saying anything about how much you’re working or what you’re taking from them to do it. So, it will probably be up to you to catch yourself.

If you do a weekly or monthly review, or if you keep a journal, devote some time to analyzing whether your goal is consuming you. Figure out if it’s driving out other important things in your life. If it is, it’s time to pull back. If it’s a goal someone else has set for you, you may have to renegotiate things or walk away. If it’s a goal you set for yourself, remember that if you set the goal, you can change it.

Bottom Line

Goals can be powerful tools that help us achieve important things. But goals are a way to live a better life, they aren’t life itself. When you suspect that your goals are hurting you, it’s time to change things.

Book Recommendation

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson is easily the best book I have ever read about setting goals because it brings the understanding of science to the practical reality of setting goals in real life. No matter who you are, how successful you’ve been, or how much you know about goal-setting, it’s worth reading. I review the book and my notes constantly.

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