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Goal setting part 1

Limiting performance

Managers have been setting goals for years.
To suggest that these are worthless would send some managers into early retirement.
The trouble is many people will perform to a level that they need to and then they will stop.

The truth is they are not worthless but can be severely devalued by the way managers use them.
Goals are further discussed as part of ‘The Complete Time Management package’.

William Edwards Deming (October 14, 1900 - December 20, 1993) was an American statistician, college professor, author, lecturer, and consultant.
His view on goals was that they actually limited performance and thus many people would be better off without them.
Many individuals only reach their goals in order to avoid a negative reinforcement, punishment or penalty (see Consequences – part 1).


The setting of goals will kick start behaviours but their rate and frequency will be dependent upon the use of various consequences.
If people just see negative reinforcement, punishment and penalties then, clearly, they will do just enough to avoid these and then stop.
If you can establish a system of positive reinforcement individuals will perform at a higher level and usually exceed goals.

For many companies any form of positive reinforcement is lacking.
If you were to ask a lot of managers just how many goals are reached very few would know.
Because managers set the goals they will accept that some were not reached but will have a positive idea that most of them were reached.
Announcing that 40, 50 or 80% of goals were achieved will be a self vindication of the goal setting system.
If you actually carried out an audit of all goals set, big and small, it would not be surprising to find a success rate of less than 20%.


The idea that goals alone will achieve success is false.
On the surface, it seems feasible because a goal is meant to clarify where you want to be somewhere in the future.
However, it doesn’t take into account the need for human intervention and motivation to make it succeed.

We know that if goals are antecedents then in order to maximise performance it would be nice to positively reinforce the desired behaviour and celebrate success. The more goals there are the more opportunities exist for positive reinforcement.
The biggest mistake managers make when setting goals is to set them too high and to set too few.

It would be more useful to breakdown larger goals or objectives into smaller goals to attain on the way to the overall goal.
In this way, each minor goal can be positively reinforced leading to frequent support for the correct behaviour.

The trouble with the larger goals is their attainment is some way in the future.
To the individual the consequence of achieving the goal may be uncertain and hence the motivation for higher performance may be reduced.
The overall larger goal may be difficult to attain anyway.

Stretch goals

Many managers might feel that the ordinary goals they are setting do not motivate individuals to greater performances.
In order to get around this a lot of managers will set ‘stretch goals’ over and above the ‘normal’ goals.

If the original goal may be hard to achieve (either technically or due to the lack of motivational opportunities from positive reinforcement), then the chances of achieving the stretch target could be minimal.

Another reason for setting stretch goals is that once people reach a particular goal they stop.
Because they are often motivated by negative reinforcement which encourages performers to stop once the threat of negative consequences has past.

Workers are also aware of the relevance of stretch goals.
They know that they are more difficult to attain so there is an expectation that failure is inevitable.
Hence, there is less worry about not meeting them as it is partly expected.