Goals, Ethics and Underachievement

OK. I admit it. I’ve been accused more than once of being too optimistic and positive about business outcomes. I know, when I believe we can accomplish something that’s never been done before, I can fall into the trap of not being a realist, not having the truth of why it won’t work. It’s especially the case when it’s been tried before and it didn’t work. Thinking big with a fundamental belief in the greater potential of people and companies is now being referred to by critics as “the cult of positivity”.

A few years ago the Wall Street Journal printed an article titled “The Power of Negative Thinking”. It claimed, “In American corporations, perhaps the most widely accepted doctrine of the “cult of positivity” is the importance of setting big, audacious goals for an organization”. It identified two problems associated with large challenging goals; unethical behavior and underachievement.

It seems to me that unethical behavior to achieve a goal would have more to do with the culture of an organization than the goals themselves. Goals can’t turn good people bad any more than the sight of a bank can turn people into bank robbers. But companies can. Compromising ethics in the pursuit of goals is not an accident, it’s a choice and that choice is deeply rooted in the cultural values and beliefs of the organization.

The WSJ article went on to say that goals may also be the source of underachievement. It cited a study in which New York cab drivers were found to make less fare on rainy days than in good weather. According to the researchers, once they hit their “mental target”, their goal of a good day’s earnings, they went home. This isn’t goal underachievement, its goal achievement and a great example of how small expectations produce small results.

We’ve all experienced it. After a long day at the office, we get home with barely enough energy to get through dinner and then do little except sit in the recliner until we fall asleep. While that’s not always bad, it is an example of what happens when we perform without a higher, more inspiring goal. Don’t be surprised then, when small goals are set for your employees, that once they achieve them they shut down. It’ll look like it’s the limit of what they can do, but more than likely, it’s the limit of what you or they expected of themselves.

It’s reported that “sometimes the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst”, a strategy called “defensive pessimism”. This sounds to me like a defense mechanism against the sting of missing a bold target. Under-promise and over-perform. It’s a cultural trait of organizations and individuals to either cover for a lack of confidence and efficacy or to avoid criticism.

Of course, optimistic goal setting must include consideration for the possible outcomes and downsides. Planning for only the best outcome, ignoring the risks and failing to prepare contingencies would be reckless and irresponsible. But expecting the best is absolutely necessary to get the best.

So, if we believe what we read, we have two problems with large, challenging goals fueled with optimism: they contribute to either under performance or unethical behavior. While both claims are entirely possible, it’s crazy to place the blame solely on the bold and aggressive nature of the goals.

 Companies come in all shapes and sizes and their cultures are as unique as fingerprints. Like people, there are good and bad. Let’s not make goals the reason to set our sights low. If you’re truly concerned about potential adverse consequences to very challenging goals, remember, the problem may lie somewhere else. Likely it’s in the belief system of the organization.

Success isn’t luck. It’s not random outcome. If it was, then why plan at all? The odds of success or failure would be the same. Great success results from dreaming beyond the horizons everyone else sees, inventing the paths to get you there and believing in yourself enough to expect it.

It was nearly fifteen years ago that Jim Collins, in his best-selling book Good To Great, encouraged business leaders to set Big Harry Audacious Goals (BHAG) as a unifying focal point for team spirit and performance. You’d think that if setting our sights high, sometimes very high, drove unethical behavior and underachievement, someone would have warned our most successful and respected companies about it.

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