Is setting goals really beneficial?

If you ever wondered about the real value of goal setting, then you’re not alone. Despite the mantra that goals are good, the process of setting and achieving beneficial goals is harder than it appears. 

It`s common practice amongst lawyers, (except for the feather quill and ink type) to take part in at least an annual goal-setting exercise, usually at the time of annual appraisals.  Woe to those who don’t make their goals SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely). However, do these goals really work? In some cases, it’s arguable that goals, may do more harm than good. 

The negative effects produced by goal setting include a potential rise in unwanted behaviours, over-focus on one area whilst neglecting other parts of the business, distorted risk preferences, damage to law firm culture, and reduced self-motivation. Used wisely however, goals can inspire employees and improve performance, but shouldn`t be used by themselves to increase productivity. 

When employees care exclusively about reaching a goal and fail to perform other activities that are valued and needed by the firm, unacceptable behaviours such as cheating goes up. Time recording targets (a goal) are a classic example of this and may partly explain why so many firms sitting on such high levels of work in progress. 

Whilst some may argue that an individual`s behaviour, such as a lack of integrity, not the goals, are to blame, it’s easy to predict that the fear of failing to achieve a goal may lead to dysfunctional behaviour.  A system of goal setting almost encourages bad behaviour unless managed correctly. Creating an indefectible system for managing performance is a key challenge for law firm leaders. 

If you want employees to engage in positive social behaviours (e.g., helping others in the firm) and/or to act ethically, then care must be taken not to set “performance goals” which relate solely to tasks.  “learning” and “mastery” goals have much more positive effects on an individual`s overall performance and their internal motivation, than the achievement of “performance” goals. 

A focus on achieving goals may distort an employee`s perception of what is acceptable behaviour so that they are less likely to consider the ethical implications of their actions, for example, claiming credit based on the false belief that their role in a team project was more important than reality would dictate, and failing to realise how they have overburdened their co-workers.   

Goals have however been shown to be extremely successful at improving measured behaviour when set correctly, and their impact doesn`t create unmeasured behaviours. Goals are appropriate when you know exactly what behaviours you want, you aren’t concerned about secondary behaviours, and unethical behaviour is not a big risk. In other cases, you still might want to use goals, but strong leaders will need to model appropriate behaviour, and provide oversight to prevent both unethical behaviours, and increased risk taking, whether intentioned or unawares by their employees.   

The alternative to setting employee goals is creating environments where people want to achieve, and where they want to do so in an ethical manner through responsible business practice. Research shows that an even stronger effect than goals is self-motivation, having individuals do an activity because they find the work rewarding in and of itself. Given that goals can undermine this intrinsic value of work, sometimes the best solution is no specific goal at all.

Kimberley Williams

©Williams Wroe


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