When Goals Can Hurt Us

In 2012 Shriya Shah-Klorfine set out to conquer Mt. Everest and satisfy a personal goal she’d had since she was nine. For years she and her husband made many sacrifices including mortgaging their home to afford the $100,000 it would cost to make the assent. In May, after making the summit and beginning her decent Shah-Klorfine and three other climbers were killed in what became one of the deadliest days on the mountain.

An investigation into the accident revealed that Shah-Klorfine had not prepared adequately for the difficulty of the climb and, along with the others, became disoriented and exhausted on the treacherous decent. Despite warnings of her Sherpa guides to turn back, Shah-Klorfine was so focused on the goal that she failed to take the necessary precautions and heed the advice of her guides, which may have saved her life and that of the others. Such is the case in business with equally tragic results sometimes.

Make no mistake, I believe goals are essential to the growth and success of companies and individuals. Human beings are goal oriented by nature. I have written often about the need to set goals in ways that drive energy and creativity and I’ve described the need for leaders to inspire groups to new heights with challenging goals. Without goals we will certainly underperform our potential. However, goals set with insufficient preparation, inadequate consideration or the wrong incentives can get off track, sometimes with dire consequences. There are a number of problems that can arise when pressure or incentive puts goal attainment ahead of everything else.

  • Killing the golden goose – Over-emphasis and pressure for short term goals risks sabotaging sound long-term strategy. Under the gun for positive quarterly gains, many publicly traded companies give up decisions that may in the long-run produce better returns and sustainability. When this happens the long-term potential of the organization is sacrificed at the altar of short-term results.
  • Skipping important steps – As the Mt. Everest tragedy points out, the singular pursuit of a goal can cause individuals to take shortcuts or chances that could result in loss or worse. In 2007 Microsoft rushed the launch of Windows Vista. Pushed to meet a marketing deadline, the product was fraught with incompatibilities and problems. The shortcuts taken in the development and testing phases threatened to alienate even its most loyal customers.
  • Suboptimization – Suboptimization can occur when one goal is placed ahead of the good of the whole. Win/lose internal competitions often leave companies worse off. An organization can begin to cannibalize itself in the pursuit of competing goals. Resources will go to the fittest instead of where they’re needed the most. We tend to get what we expect and by focusing too hard on the goal, teams and individuals will win, even at the expense of the company.
  • Unethical behavior – We don’t have to look far to find examples of how overly ambitious goals fueled by the potential for large financial gain resulted in the financial ruin of companies and nearly our entire economy. Becoming so singularly focused on a goal can cause individuals and organizations to ignore fundamental principles and act in ways they would never have thought they would. The infractions can range from cheating on a sales report to fabricating financial statements and lying to investors as was the case with Enron. We often see it as a failure of character. While that may be a part, those involved often see it as the necessary actions to achieve a greater outcome. In other words, the end justify the means.

Humans are very adaptable and capable of accomplishing what’s important to them. Despite rhetoric and words, we’re good at figuring out what’s really important and responding to that. Therefore, goal setting should be undertaken carefully with an eye for potential unintended consequences. Properly placed goals with the right coaching and leadership can result in tremendous energy, creativity and positive outcomes.

Not surprisingly though, if you set goals and use pressure to get results, you’re likely to get the results you’re looking for. Likewise, when you heavily incent goals, they too will likely get accomplished. But don’t be surprised in either case to find that major corners were cut or employees bent or even broke the rules to get them done. They’re smart and the right amount of pressure or incentive can get good people to do just about anything.

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