The Problem with Workplace Goal Setting

Topic(s): goals, performance
Publication: The Academy of Management Perspectives

Article: The systematic side effects of overprescribing goal setting.

Authors: L.D. Ordonez, M.E. Schweitzer, A.D. Galinsky, M.H. Bazerman
Reviewed by: Benjamin Granger

Research studies have consistently shown that setting challenging and specific goals lead to increased employee performance at work. However, a new article (Ordonez, Schweitzer, Galinsky, and Bazerman, 2009) describes goal setting as “overprescribed” and guilty of causing predictable and unfavorable side effects.


The authors organized their attack by listing several ways in which goal setting can actually lead to negative outcomes. To illustrate their points, they cited research on goal setting as well as famous historical examples of how goal setting may have led to major organizational failures, including Enron’s collapse and safety issues associated with the Ford Pinto. According to the authors, goal setting can:

1. Narrow Employees’ Focus

Specific goals can narrow employees’ attention to the point that they neglect other important features of a certain task or project. For example, they may focus on pumping out products in high quantity with little attention paid to safety issues.

2. Encourage Risky Behavior

Setting goals that are too challenging can lead to risk taking in order to meet the lofty goals.

3. Promote Unethical Behavior

Like risky behavior, goals that are too challenging can promote unethical behavior. For example, employees may charge customers extra for a service to meet profit goals.

4. Reduce Employee Learning

Goals may hinder learning if they interfere with employees exploring various courses of action and experimenting with creative alternatives.

5. Decrease Cooperation among Employees

A heavy focus on performance goals can lead to decreased pro-social helping behaviors. In other words, employees wrapped up in achieving performance goals may neglect organizational citizenship behavior (i.e., behavior that extends beyond formal job requirements).

6. Increase Extrinsic Motivation at the Cost of Intrinsic Motivation

Employees may strive to perform for external rewards (quarterly bonuses) and focus less on the personal meaning of the task or project.


The authors concluded their article by offering organizational leaders a list of ten questions (along with a rationale for each) that should be asked prior to employing goal setting. A few example include: “Are the goals too challenging?”, “Who sets the goals?”, and “How might goals motivate unethical behavior?”.

Finally, the authors sarcastically accuse the advocates of goal setting of having accomplished “their specific, challenging goal of becoming publishing juggernauts” at the cost of providing good managerial advice.

Ordonez, L.D., Schweitzer, M.E., Galinsky, A.D., & Bazerman, M.H. (2009). Goals gone
wild: The systematic side effects of overprescribing goal setting. The Academy of Management Perspectives, 23(1), 6-16.