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When Good Goals Go Bad

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A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over.

--Charles Dickens, Hard Times
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Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net user, Stuart Miles

In HR, we talk a lot about goals--organizational goals, department goals, individual goals--and how they should align. This alignment allows employees, teams, and departments to move in the same direction to help organizations succeed.

While it may seem simple to set goals, in practice, this can be more difficult than one might think. The challenge lies in the impact goal-setting can have on behavior. On one hand, setting, measuring, and rewarding for goals can help motivate employees and advance organizational objectives. On the other hand, it can potentially cause people to focus solely on the goals that are measured, and ignore other equally important activities that are not measured. In worst-case scenarios, performance management systems that are not carefully structured can even bring about perverse incentives that can lead to gaming or corruption. In his 2008 article, Richard Rothstein wrote about goal distortion in a wide range of scenarios--Soviet enterprise production efforts, healthcare, criminal justice, education... even bus drivers in Santiago, Chile. A fascinating read that shows how easily goals can be distorted if not properly designed.

I bring this up not to scare anyone. In fact, when an organization gets it right, amazing things happen! But I do think organizations should proceed with caution to make sure the goals they set actually achieve their indented outcomes. In a future performance management post, we will discuss what effective goal setting looks like, and how it might benefit your school, district, or organization.


Naima Khandaker, Battelle for Kids Human Capital Specialist, authored this post. Naima is a former teacher and current education policy nerd who believes that one day soon, education will be great for all kids.

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