A nice new review of research on goal-setting provides some balance in how goals can be used to guide workplace performance.

The following (admittedly low-quality) graphic comes from the authors' working paper.

GoalWarning

The authors don't deny that goals can be useful and powerful. Instead, they focus on the negative side-effects that can occur.

Their balanced approach seems eminently sensible to me. The SMART goal revolution didn't always acknowledge some of the downsides, nor did it provide a Situation-Based Learning Design approach, providing learners with a sense of when to use goals, and when not to.

Everybody in the Learning-and-Performance field ought to read this working paper at once.

The authors: Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman

My thanks to marciamarcia on Twitter for letting me know about this important work.

Working Paper Executive Summary (copied from first link above):

For decades, goal setting has been promoted as a halcyon pill for improving employee motivation and performance in organizations. Advocates of goal setting argue that for goals to be successful, they should be specific and challenging, and countless studies find that specific, challenging goals motivate performance far better than "do your best" exhortations. The authors of this article, however, argue that it is often these same characteristics of goals that cause them to "go wild." Key concepts include:

  • The harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged.
  • Goal setting harms organizations in systematic and predictable ways.
  • The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.
  • In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.
  • Managers should ask specific questions to ascertain whether the harmful effects of goal setting outweigh the potential benefits.