Why “stretch goals” are a waste of time

We have all heard this advice: Set audacious goals if you want to accomplish anything substantial. That advice comes from personal coaches, self-help gurus, management consultants, managers and executives and is deeply imbedded in leadership practices. Yet, there is evidence that goal setting may actually be counter productive if not a waste of time.

My experience in working with individuals and organizations is that most do not actually achieve the goals that are set. One of two things occur: Either the goal is so difficult that the individual or organization is actually demotivated or demoralized early in the process of trying to achieve it; or, the goals are set, and thereafter, little or no attention is focused on them. The result is often demotivation and negative attitudes toward goal setting.

The following is a typical template for goal setting that can be found almost anywhere on the Internet:

• Write down the goals
• Make goals specific and clear
• Indicate how you’ll measure goal accomplishment
• Have goal deadlines
• State goals in terms of outcomes

The inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows that the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require any substantial behavioral change, or thinking pattern change, will automatically be resisted by the brain. In addition, our brains are wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure enters the mind of the goal setter, it becomes a demotivator in accomplishing the goal, with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns.

In organizations, “stretch goals,” or “hairy audacious goals,” as a management motivational strategy, is widely practiced. Aubrey Daniels, in his book, Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time And Money, argues that stretch goals are an ineffective management practice and a waste of time and money. Daniels cites one study that shows that when individuals repeatedly fail to reach stretch goals, their performance declined. Another study showed that 10% of employees actually achieved stretch goals. Daniels argues that goals are motivating people only when they have received positive rewards and feedback from reaching them in the past.

So what should replace the process of setting goals, particularly audacious or stretch goals? Daniels argues for small improvements and incremental targets, and the smaller the better. Add to that regular positive reinforcement by others and self, and this type of goal setting is beneficial.

A second argument for why most people are not successful in achieving goals is that the goals are not connected to their values in life, and their sense of personal mission. Being clear about who you are, how you show up in the world and in relationships, and the impact you’ll make on others and the world is a clear predecessor for any kind of successful goal attainment.

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