Goal Setting…The Dark Side.

Photo: Katie Oliver

Photo: Katie Oliver

Goal setting is all the rage nowadays. The internet, films, articles and endless self help books tell us how to set goals, how to break them down into manageable sub goals and then everything will be wonderful, the sun will always shine, we will be popular and successful, and rich to boot. Just get that list made and all will follow as surely as the southerly follows the nor’wester.

But it seems to me that goal setting has a dark side. Quite a big one, and one of the biggest problems, in my book, is that it simply doesn’t work.

Just what happens when you fail to achieve those goals? Sometimes the stakes are very high indeed. Let’s say you need to sell 10 widgets this month, or be sacked. It isn’t set up like that of course. No, there will be a big meeting with nibbles and designer water and a powerpoint presentation and lots of ‘rah rah’ about how the company is on the up and up and the company only wants the best employees, and it knows these people here ARE the best employees. And they can prove it! Sell 10 widgets by the end of the month and you can be a super employee! You will get put into the top selling areas where the most widgets are sold and be eligible for bonuses. All you need to do are sell those 10 widgets!

Those who don’t sell 10 widgets need more help. They will be put onto ‘special measures’ where they have to attend extra motivational meetings (in their own time, and with no extra pay of course) and they will have all their work scrutinised by a special manager. The idea is, I believe, to make sure they simply get fed up and leave. No need to sack them then, but if they don’t go of their own accord, then, given the fact the super employees have all the best selling areas, they will soon fail another goal and out they go.

With stress like this behind meeting the targets what does a poor employee do? Well whatever it is you can bet it is not in the best interest of the company! They are hardly going to share contacts, are they? They are not going to hand over a big potential widget buyer to a more experienced colleague even if they do not have the experience to deal with a major player in the widget market. They are going to offer time based discounts on widgets to get the sales into this month. They are going to cook the books, by holding over the 2 extra sales they made last month to this month. They may even resort to answering other peoples phones when they are out of the office, damming their colleagues with faint praise, before offering to take up the deal themselves. I am sure you can think of other ways and methods, but we will stop here.

A friend of mine works for a big company. Every year they are required to set goals for themselves and write out the steps to achieve them. The trouble is that they are also assessed on these goals at the end of the year, and if they fail to achieve them then the management want to know why. The assumption is they have been slacking. Even if they set a challenging goal and achieve 85% of it, that is not good enough. You achieve them…or you don’t.

So at her place of work they plan their goals very carefully indeed. They must be easy to assess, and easy to achieve. There is a certain amount of ‘goal swapping’ going on. “I did this last year, and it worked well. You try it this year and Sarah can have it next year….”

Anyone who wants to really challenge themselves (and probably benefit the company as well) is quickly dissuaded by the others. The result is people setting mediocre targets for themselves, ones they know they can easily achieve.

My son did this at primary school. The kids had to set a goal for the term. Children wrote down things like ‘getting to the end of the red reading scheme books’ or ‘keeping my journal up to date’. My son wrote that his goal was to remember to put his chair up at the end of the day. That’s my boy! Easy to achieve, easy to assess. Success assured.

But what about personal goals? The ones you set for yourself, rather than ones imposed by management? Say, losing 10 pounds by Christmas, broken down into a manageable sub goal of one pound per week. Or running a 5km in under 25 minutes, broken down into getting under 30 minutes by the Easter Egg Run, and under 28 minutes by the Beach Fun Run etc. You can read all about setting personal goals on the internet. It’s easier than you think! Write those goals down! Set a deadline! Stay motivated by visualising achieving your goal!

And then you don’t achieve it. Again. Now what? You are a miserable failure just as you always knew you were. So what that you have lost 9 pounds. It wasn’t the 10 you set as your goal was it? So what that you have run 25:10. You knew you were no good as a runner, this just proves it. Might as well give up now, despite the fact that when you set the goal you were running 5km in 36 minutes…

So what to do? We don’t want to just drift aimlessly from day to day, reacting to life, going with the flow rather than having an idea of where we want to be in the future. But setting goals seems to be a double edged sword. How do we plan for the future without destroying our peace and happiness at the same time?

I have been struggling with this question. I have entered my first marathon, and without some sort of goal (finish the darn thing) and a training plan I would be unable to to it. Yet I have made and failed with so many plans and goals in the past, and suffered all the guilt and self hatred that comes with failure. I can also come up with 101 ideas to rig the system so it seems I achieved my goal when I didn’t. Which is not the point.

My friend, Michelle, has made a ‘yearly plan’ rather than a list of hard and fast goals. ‘This year I intend to get outside more’, etc. Maybe this is a better idea. I intend to run a marathon this year, rather than I will run this particular marathon on this particular date in this particular time.

Peter has taken a sabbatical year this year, and is constantly being asked what his plans are. So he made a list of goals for the year, all beautifully written out on nice paper with coloured sections. He looked at it and groaned. So much to do, so many goals to achieve!

He put his pens away, got out his board and went surfing!

So maybe this is the solution. Make the plans, then treat them with the contempt they deserve and get out for a good surf!

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