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08.06.2007 Feature Article

Why Goal Setting Fails

Goal setting is an extremely powerful technique for accomplishment, but for it to really be effective, it requires more than just writing down what we want to achieve.

Goal setting helps us to determine our priorities, get organised, make big decisions, and realise our dreams. Almost all motivational experts incorporate goal setting as an important part of their programmes.

The goal statement forms the basis for the entire process, so careful attention should be paid to formulating a clear and accurate goal statement. A good way to remember how a goal statement should be defined is what most experts in Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour have termed in goal setting as SMART, which stands for:

Specific — Goals should be straightforward and should emphasise what you want to happen. Specifics help the organisation to focus its efforts and clearly define what it is going to do. Specific is the what, why, and how of the SMART model. Instead of setting a goal to lose weight or be healthier, set a specific goal to lose 3cm off your waist.

Measurable — If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it. Choose a goal with measurable progress, so you can see the change occurring. How will you see when you reach your goal? Be specific. 

I want to read four chapters of The Power of the Holy Spirit on my own before my birthday in November. This shows the specific target to be measured, as against, I want to be a good reader. This cannot be measured.

Attainable — When you identify goals that are most important to you, you begin to figure out ways you can make them come true. You develop those attitudes, abilities, skills and financial capacity to reach them. You begin seeing previously overlooked opportunities to bring yourself closer to the achievement of your goals.

A goal needs to stretch you slightly so you feel you can do it and it will need a real commitment from you. For instance, if you aim to lose 10kg in one week we all know that it is not achievable. But setting a goal to lose 2kg and when you have achieved that, aiming to lose a further 2kg will keep it achievable for you.

Realistic — In this case this is “do-able”. It means the learning curve is not a vertical slope; that the skills that you need to do the work are available, that the project fits with the overall strategy and goals of the organisation.


A realistic project may push the skills and knowledge of the workers working on it but it should not break them. Set the bar higher enough for a satisfying achievement.

Timely — It has a definite deadline for completion and realises limited availability of resources. Set a time frame for the goal; for next week, one month, grade A. 

Putting an end point on your goal gives you a clear target to work towards.  If you cannot set a time, the commitment becomes too vague. The time must be measurable, attainable and realistic.

Misuse of Goal Setting

Why don't most people set and achieve personal goals, career goals and business goals? Goal setting is a positive, powerful practice which ignites enthusiasm and provides clear direction.

When practised poorly, however, goal setting also has a serious downside which can undermine the organisation's success.

Poor goal setting makes people cynical, wastes their time and fosters confusion about where to concentrate actions and energy. How does such a potentially successful practice as goal setting go wrong, so often?

Avoid these misuse of a potentially positive, powerful practice: Goal setting for personal goals, career goals and organisational goals.

Organisations often fail to achieve goals and strategic planning targets that are set top-down, by executives who lack crucial information and are out of touch with staff challenges.

The goals are unrealistic and they fail to consider organisation resources and capabilities. Staff members do not believe that the rewards they will receive for goal accomplishment will equal the energy they invest to achieve them. Frequently, managers are intimidated when they fear job loss or failure.


The President of TechSmith Corporation, William Hamilton, says, “During the roaring, crazy days of the nineties, using goals to impress was commonplace, although organisations also utilised this technique long before the Internet arrived. In this process, management creates goals based on the desire to impress or mislead outside groups."

According to Hamilton, this process is also used to avoid serious analysis of the company and the marketplace. At the end of the time period, these goals can then be used by senior management to pass the buck and the blame for the failure to meet the goals.

To internal staff members, who were often unconvinced and unmoved by the unrealistic, 'show' goals, senior management's actions produced serious morale and competency-questioning issues. To staff members who bought into the euphoria, failure to achieve the goals was a deadly downward spiral.

Hamilton says a potential serious downside occurs when "the ratio of energy, time and creativity that goes into creating the goal outstrips (and comes out of the hide) of actually managing the product."

In one small manufacturing company, a management group decided to use histogram to track goal accomplishment. After starting with a huge investment of time in making the charts for all of their goals, the management group soon abandoned the charting.

When questioned later, they affirmed that the charting was taking too much of the time they needed to accomplish the goals. But, they had awesome charts while they were keeping them up.

Another example of this is when an organisation spends time and energy to develop a comprehensive business plan, and then the plan sits in a drawer.

While the act of making the plan was important, the follow-up is the critical piece. Regular review and follow-up makes a plan live - and serve.

Many goals

People with too many goals experience these issues; they never feel as if they accomplish a complete task; It is difficult to tie their goal accomplishment to a reward and recognition system that recognises their accomplishments.

They do not know what is most important to accomplish next. They fall prey to the "check it off the list" syndrome in which they check tasks off their list before the actions have been integrated by the organisation.

Goal setting is a positive, powerful, business practice when it tells your staff where you are going. Effective goal setting also demonstrates what success will look like during the journey and upon arrival. When practised poorly, goal setting can negatively impact your organisation in all the ways described.

Article by Ven Daniel Sylvanus Torto

Daily Graphic
Daily Graphic, © 2007

This author has authored 233 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: DailyGraphic

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