Why Goals are Dangerous and How to Make them Work
“If you want to achieve your goals, DON’T focus on them.” (Reggie Rivers former Denver Bronco’s running back.)
Goals can kill you.
Summit-fever refuses to take NO for an answer.
Nearly 300 people have died climbing Mt. Everest. The first fatality of 2019 was Chris Daly who fell to his death on April 20.
Some climbers die because of an overwhelming desire to reach the peak – summit fever.
Summit-fever is over-commitment to goals.
When climbing Mt. Everest, you need to reach the summit by 2:00 p.m. Imagine how hard it is to turn back when the summit is in sight and turn-around time has come and gone.
On May 10, 1996 eight people died on Mt. Everest. The tragedy happened for several reasons. But if the climbers had observed a safe turn-around time, they might have survived.
5 limitations of goals-only thinking:
#1. Winners and losers have the same goals. Several climbers successfully reached the summit and returned safely on May 10, 1996.
#2. Goals restrict happiness. Goal-fever puts off happiness until goals are reached.
(The above items are adapted from, “Atomic Habits,” by James Clear.)
#3. Goal-driven leaders minimize difficulties and exaggerate opportunities. False optimism results in best-scenario-thinking.
#4. Setting a goal is easy. Choosing the next best step is the challenge.
#5. Goals are outside your control. But behaviors are within your control.
2 ways to make goals work:
First, what can you do TODAY that moves you closer to achieving your goal? (Redefine goals if you can’t specifically answer the previous question.)
Second, determine why your goal matters. Goals are secondary matters. Why do you want to make your first million, build a team, or strengthen relationships?
Tip: Eliminate behaviors that block progress, distract focus, and waste energy. Write a ‘to-don’t’ list when you set a goal.
What’s dangerous about goal-setting?
How might leaders use goals effectively?
Beyond Typical S.M.A.R.T Goals (Jim Parker, former CEO of Southwest Airlines)
An hour-by-hour accounting of the 1996 tragedy on Everest from (PBS)
The movie, Everest dramatizes the tragedy.
Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting (HBS)
Lessons from Everest (California Management Review)
Summit Fever: what an illustrative analogy!
Thanks Gerry. Here’s to a great week.
I’m a big believer in your comment on behavior. I tell my team often – we will control what we can control – and there is more within our control than might be apparent at first.
Thanks Gary. Focusing on things we can control is one of the things that successful people and leaders always do. It’s too easy to get frustrated and discouraged by focusing on things we can’t control.
That’s so useful for position – focusing on what each individual can control. I’m not in leadership currently & several things regarding my leadership have been driving me loopy. But in focusing on what I can control has given me a sense on empowerment & distance travelled.
An interesting take. When you think about it — setting the goal isn’t so much the problem; it’s more the need for constant evaluation of the process and the concerns that arise as we work on the steps we laid out to achieve the goal. We all know we need our staff evaluations done by a specific date and time, but if we don’t see why Management is finding it hard to achieve the goal, and make mid-course adjustments, we end up with a simple tally of # of completions vs. # of incomplete — vs. the actual goal of getting some formal feedback to staff.
Thanks Mary Ellen. You made me think about two things. First, adapt as you go. Second, look for root causes. The trouble with root causes is sometimes we need to change. OUCH!
Best wishes with your mission.
What’s dangerous about goals, as you say, is myopia …
The closer you get, the more you tend to see ONLY what’s in front of you … and nearsight becomes shortsightedness and parallel rays converge/ focus in front of the retina rather than on it … and perspective is lost …
Who is left to ask, “What’s the NEXT successful step AFTER this one? What LARGER goal may be sacrificed if we do this NOW?”
Because that’s what leaders do … they integrate all perspectives while achieving INSIGHT (not nearsight).
No “Yesbodies” allowed. Someone might need to say, “We can’t do this (now).
Thanks Rurbane. Great seeing you here today. Love “nearsight becomes shortsightedness!” I never heard it put that way. I’m going to remember this.
There’s something freeing when stand back and look at the big picture. It seems like nearsighted leaders experience self-imposed stress. And too much stress makes us stupid.
Hi Dan and all,
I appreciated your reminder that “…goals are secondary matters.” Thanks and have a great week!
Thanks Cate. Same to you!
Reminds me of one of Mintzberg’s approach to planning; that strategy often best evolves over time as you need to adjust to fit the changing reality.
Thanks Brad. Yes, if memory serves, Mintzberg is not a huge fan of traditional strategic planning. “Strategies don’t come out a formerly planned process. Most strategies emerge as people solve little problems.” Mintzberg
Thanks for bringing Mintzberg to the conversation
What’s dangerous about goal setting?
Being focus on what matters least and de-validating on what matters most. Everyone got a goal and being a secondary matter, one fail to define what the odds stands for between the short-term goal and long-term goal. What are our success habits? What one step we can take to get us closer to our goals? Setting a goal is easy. Choosing the next ‘best’ step is the challenge. I think team work plays a vital role to growth and it’s measure in trust and humility knowing the value of what the goal stands for.
Thanks Godwin. It’s incredibly easy to lose sight of what matters most. Urgencies and interruptions often distract us from priorities. Sadly, because work is so hectic, the priority is dealing with the next urgency, regardless of how important it is.
Liked the strategy of working on goals by concentrating on ‘What You Can Do TODAY’ in the process of reaching goals. If need be, alter the goals reviewing the current and likely situation rather than going with Summit Fever as well defined.
Thanks Dr. Asher. Sometimes the things we can’t do control our thoughts and conversations. Someone has to ask, “What CAN we do?”
Thanks so much for the title of your post. In a world gone mad for goals, it’s risky and courageous to call out the dangers of goals. I rejected goals a long time ago in favor of intentions. I set intentions because I certainly intend to achieve things, to head in a certain direction, to make progress. For me, goals became oppressive. Hurry up and make that deadline! Who made the deadline? Me! Why would I insist on stressing myself out? Who was I racing against? For what? My health suffered. And my team’s health suffered. Geez. It was so simple to let go of those darn SMART goals and take hold of intentions. Once the pressure was off, we started to notice things that supported our intentions. And we did accomplish things. Also became a place people wanted to work. Now I encourage my coaching clients to set intentions and take actions toward those intentions. No deadlines. No pressure. And I take my own advice. I have confidence that I will achieve or receive what I desire, and that is largely the case. In other cases, I realize I may have dodged a bullet, so I am grateful. I could go on and on, but I will not. I will simply thank you again for raising a wonderful topic.
Thank you so much. I’ve never been a Goals person. Maybe my so-called career is proof. But many things in this article, and the comments, ring true. The best goals are self-evident. Setting intermediate ones, with “turn-back times,” around the tough parts of the big goal can help teams focus on what’s necessary, even if risky and not much fun. But a lot of goals seem arbitrary and confining. Maybe goal-setting is more useful to some people and some situations than others . Thanks!
Goals are dangerous when they are used in a negative way to punish someone. We should celebrate success–even if the goal was not perfectly met. Goals should be long term. A short term goal leads to short term thinking. And that is a quick way to fail. Before creating a goal, think about what would need to be true for you to meet the goal and what could you get if it wasn’t for barriers like people or budgets.
Just read it and I had a mindset shift right away.Thank you Mr D