The dark side of goal setting

Setting goals – specific, measurable, achievable, revealed (at least to one other person), time bound and WRITTEN – has been correlated with success. (Some even claim a causal link.)  Imagine a Tom Brady or Roger Federer with no goals.

The start of the calendar (or lunar) year is a great time to reflect on last year’s achievements and reset goals. Working in California recently, a long way from New Zealand, it was great to confirm the universal relevance of goals and goal setting. While culture or stage of life may determine the types of goals people set, the broad relevance of goal setting remains.

Personally, I have set three new goals for 2019 – different from my routine goals – and have told at least three people. Already, I can feel the giant clock in my mind ticking: ‘get going, get going, get going’.

I first appreciated the human nature of goal setting in the 1990s listening to Professor Luiz Machado at a conference in St Louis, Missouri.  He explained how the structure of the midbrain facilitates the achievement of an ideal through its orchestration of neural network development in the cortex. I was fascinated that a) we seem to be built for success and b) we come with the mechanisms for success already ‘engineered in’.

Fast forward 20 years from that conference and an article in a newspaper caught my eye: Secrets behind the success” of one of New Zealand’s billionaires. I must confess to being rather disappointed to read in the article: “timeout to think about strategy, seeking the counsel of others, setting a plan with milestones and monitoring against the plan.”  Is that all, I thought?

Still, there it is in a nutshell.  Success (in whatever way that is uniquely and personally defined) is associated with:

  • Setting clear goals
  • Translating those into planned actions to achieve the goals
  • Conferring with and consulting others
  • Tracking success and adjusting as you go

Dark side of goal setting

The Australian Royal Commission into the Banking Sector published a scathing report on 4th February 2019 – a sweeping condemnation of banks, their boards and executives.   Some have fallen on their swords and indictments are expected. Most shocking for the public however were the 68 days of hearings and the awful stories similar to what whistle-blower Jeff Morris directly heard day after day in his job at the bank. His hard-won battle at huge personal cost was to restore fairness to customers who lost millions, while he was repeatedly shunned by the financial services sector watchdog, ASIC.  His commitment led eventually to the Royal Commission which has resulted in 76 recommendations including that banks put customers first.

How has this happened? When I was growing up, the local bank manager was one of the most trusted members of the community.  Recent investigations in New Zealand revealed that a mentally-vulnerable insurance customer, living on a state benefit, was sold unemployment insurance by someone with a sales target to meet. For decades now, questions have been asked about sales targets of pharmaceutical companies. People have died who have exposed the dark side of goal setting.

Light side of goal setting

“Sunlight is a great disinfectant.”

How can you harness the power of goal setting without the risk of harm to you and/or others? Here are some tips:

  1. Open up about your goals. Publish them – literally or metaphorically
  2. “Seek the counsel of others”- people you trust to be honest with you
  3. Have counter goals. It is all too common to set quantity goals that drive quality down or vice versa. A singular view is rarely the answer
  4. Count the real costs. What price are you prepared to pay to achieve the goals? Factor in the real impact of success on both you and others

Brains are at their best, and human beings are at their healthiest, when adding value for self and others.  The human brain will never be at its best when achievement of goals causes harm.


About Cherri Holland

Fascinated with business, brains and how to use the brains on the payroll to make business buzz.
This entry was posted in Self-management. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The dark side of goal setting

  1. Hi Cherri,
    It is a nice take on goal setting. As people say, the society is created by the collective brains who live in the society. So, various sociological aspects such as culture, religion, etc also have huge impact on goal setting and the way in which people realize their goals. Hope to see your take on how such sociological aspects could impact goal setting and how to leverage such aspects in best way for goal setting.


    • A challenge! To explore goal setting from a social/cultural context. Keen to know your and others’ thoughts about this too!

      • For example, in Hindu Culture, we perform prayers to Gods everyday (*almost*) and at the end of the prayer, we are supposed to tell the God, what we want to achieve in near future or in the year ahead. This, I believe is similar to goal setting and reminding ourselves of the goal every day and taking a step towards realizing the goal.

        This way of goal setting is impacted by cultural aspects of my religion. How our brain works is a mystery but there are social factors established already in our society that tells us indirectly to do goal setting. So, goal setting through such context could be interesting aspect to be explored by experts like yourself.

  2. Interesting! Thanks for sharing. It’s good to integrate all aspects of life – it all resonates better for us and we are more likely to achieve our goals if everything is synchronised in the way you describe

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