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Goal-Setting Principles: Problematic or Universal?

I recently read some interesting articles on goal setting in the Academy of Management Perspectives. The first article discussed “Goals Gone Wild” and focused on all the ways that goal setting can go awry: it can kill intrinsic motivation, it can increase risk-taking behavior, it can lead to ethical problems, and a variety of other unintended outcomes. The response from the goal setting “gods” is that the research is clearly unrepresentative, and those who find problems with goal setting have “abandoned good scholarship.” Of course, their research, mostly conducted on undergraduate students in laboratories, is hardly the epitome of scientific research that translates well into real-world management settings..

Although it may sound like I am disregarding goal setting, that is not true. Goal setting does serve a purpose in certain circumstances. Engaging in an effective goal-setting process can result in greater performance, especially if mechanisms are in place to monitor goal progress and make necessary adjustments. However, goal setting is only effective when it meets the situational and individual difference constraints that exist for a particular goal.

Though goal setting researchers would like us to believe that goal setting is one of those situational forces that are so powerful as to produce universal effects (kind of like Milgram’s authority studies), the reality is that some individual differences, like one’s personality and intrinsic motivation levels, have to be considered during any sort of goal setting process. Moreover, contextual aspects such as, type of feedback, group versus individual settings, and even leadership style may affect the impact of goal-setting on performance. Interestingly, goal-setting has its weakest effects with tasks that are more complex and have no clear progress cues, which pretty much describes most real-world tasks!

The assumption that there is one right way to set goals, make progress toward goals, and successfully achieve one’s goals, seems to be a faulty assumption, especially considering the complexity of (1) the individuals involved in goal setting and (2) the context within which that goal setting occurs. We need to consider the possible alterations that may need to be made when working with employees to set goals. Remember, if you believe that there is one right way to set goals, then you will see all performance opportunities as a way to apply faulty “universal principles.” Don’t be surprised, though, when your goal setting hammer doesn’t produce the desired result on people who don’t respond well to “universal principles.”      

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1 Comments

Charlotte McKinnon (01/18/10) said:

This is a great post. I really like the unique ideas in Guerrilla Achiever by Douglas Vermeeren. He is the author of the new Guerrilla book book with Jay Levinson, Guerrilla Achiever. Our school received an advance copy. I think it is probably one of the best books for achievement and goal setting. The book is really unique in tools and lessons that are shared for achievement. I think it is probably the best book written on achievement and some of the lessons in the book I have never heard or seen elsewhere. Whereas other materials are full of hyped up promises about doing the impossible. This book delivers. It really gives a new fresh look on achievement. I highly recommend it to all and it is useful for people of all age

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Matt Grawitch published on May 7, 2009 4:39 PM.

Will the H1N1 Flu Change the Way We Work? was the previous entry in this blog.

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