Goals do more harm than good: management researchers
The line dividing aspiration and ambition is rather thin. To aspire for one’s betterment is valid and makes sense. However, vaulting ambition can often do more harm than good. This difference needs to be understood thoroughly by corporate executives – both young and seasoned.
For whatever reason, ambition has long been prized and promoted by managers across the business spectrum. It is viewed as the ladder to success. But executives are rarely advised to match their high ambition and stretch goals with their capabilities. The mismatch between the two often results in disillusionment for the executive as well as the company. Unrealistic as they are, puffed-up goals often go for a six.
Management pundits have for quite some time been working on and writing about the perils of high ambition. Ambitious goals have long been used as a motivational tool for managers. Most companies try to nurture the ambition instinct in their managers as a matter of policy. Working in a pro-ambition environment, many managers imbibe this trait on their own. Ill-researched self-help books also propel, particularly, younger managers towards the path of ambition.
The strangest fact is that no proven research exists establishing a causal relationship between ambitious goal-setting and their successful attainment.
On the contrary, research findings of four top business schools quoted by the Harvard Business Review show that in many cases, goals do more harm than good to companies and individuals using them. According to the findings, “The researchers identified “bad side effects” produced by goal-setting programmes, including a rise in unethical behaviour, a narrow focus, distorted risks, the corrosion of organisational culture and reduced intrinsic motivation.”
According to recent neuroscience research, in case of goal-setting the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioural change, or thinking-pattern change, will automatically be resisted. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter, it becomes a “de-motivator,” with a desire to return to known, comfortable behaviour and thought patterns.
Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Management expert and author Ray Williams points out that any goals that require substantial behavioural change, or thinking-pattern change, will automatically be resisted. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter, it becomes a “de-motivator,” with a desire to return to known, comfortable behaviour and thought patterns.
Goal-setting often brings to the fore the mismatch between ambitious objectives and the manager’s competencies. Whenever we desire things we don’t have, we set our brain’s nervous system to produce negative emotions.
Williams elaborates, “Highly aspirational goals require us to develop new competencies, some of which may be beyond current capabilities. As we develop these competencies, we are likely to experience failures, which then become de-motivational.
“If the goal is not attained, we often engage in thinking we are failures, not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough, not worthy of success
Goal setting also sets up an either-or polarity of success. The only true measure can either be 100% attainment or perfection, or 99% and less, which is failure. That can leave us excessively focusing on the missing or incomplete part of our efforts, while ignoring the successful parts. It also doesn’t take into account random forces of chance.”
I have come across numerous examples of young and senior managers who have been driven by high ambition to venture into uncharted territories. There is nothing basically wrong in aspiring to work in new business domains. In fact, those with their eyes set on CXO positions are expected to have adequate exposure to all major functions in business. The CXO needs to be an all-round professional.
Yet at the same time, the aspiring manager should honestly evaluate his existing competencies. Nothing can match scrupulous self-evaluation. After all, you know yourself best!
But how many managers really assess themselves without bias before choosing new goals. I recall a highly competent chartered accountant who was efficiently heading the finance department of a business group. But he had the CXO slot as his goal for long and ultimately managed to convince the board to designate him as Chief Operating Officer. With the new designation came new responsibilities and the new COO found himself not up to the mark. After a few tumultuous months, he had to return to the finance function and ultimately seek employment elsewhere. Both the company and the employee suffered.
Many a time, young managers pull strings to wangle their dream position. This is almost a practice in our part of the world. Company bosses are flooded with recommendations from politicos, bureaucrats, etc. to push their favourites up the ladder. Little do they realise that those recommended are hardly qualified and experienced for the new position. In fact, had they been good enough, they would have been automatically promoted. The private sector still honours merit. In fact, it survives and grows because of its star managers.
Those who manage to move up on the basis of recommendation and pressure should remember that they will last only till their patrons remain in power. But they damage the organisation and their own prospects as well till they manage to stick to their positions. Bereft of merit, they find no takers once they lose their office. There is no substitute to merit.
The goal-driven youngsters also try to enter and rise in companies on the basis of “fancy” degrees and diplomas from the plethora of educational shops which masquerade as universities abroad. Many manage to “buy” qualifications from established foreign universities. Even USA’s prestigious Ivy League institutions welcome hefty endowments. But will such qualifications make Richie Rich bright overnight? Will they prove to be an asset for the companies they serve? No wonder, this route is usually adopted by kith and kin of company owners and chiefs.
So if companies have to grow, then their goal should be to employ the really meritorious. And it is not difficult to locate the brilliant; they shine. The other goal should be to provide them all-round training. Polishing a diamond makes it brighter.
This type of goal-setting is more than welcome. It is the call of the day.