Goal Setting – Pitfalls and Benefits

Goal setting is a funny thing. Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve had a long and checkered relationship with it. I’ve gone back and forth, was a big fan, hated it, went back to goal setting again. What is it that fascinates and repels about goal setting? I set out to look at some of the research and found a great meta study by Latham and Locke in 2006. They say

more than 1,000 studies conducted by behavioral scientists on more than 88 different tasks, involving more than 40,000 male and female participants in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America, show that specific high goals are effective in significantly increasing a person’s performance – regardless of the method by which they are set. Assigned goals by a manager, for example, are as effective as self-set or participatively set goals if they are accompanied by logic or a rationale from a manager.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Except the title of the research article where these words appear is “Enhancing the Benefits and Overcoming the Pitfalls of Goal Setting.”

So there are pitfalls, too, and they often do not get talked about. What are some, according to Latham and Locke?

  • When people lack the knowledge and skill to attain a goal, giving them a difficult goal sometimes leads to poorer performance than telling them to do their best
  • A goal can have a detrimental effect on a group’s performance if there is conflict among group members
  • A goal can be detrimental if it is viewed as a threat rather than a challenge
  • Goals can have an adverse effect on risk taking, if failure to attain a specific high goal is punished
  • Paradoxically, goal attainment can become problematic. Past successes quite naturally increase satisfaction. This satisfaction can lead to (a) too much reliance on previously successful strategies and (b) increasingly high self-confidence and the setting of goals that are too high
  • Tying goal attainment to self-esteem can result in a desperate over-commitment
  • Goals can increase a person’s stress, especially if they are challenging and there are 37 goals rather than a reasonable number, such as 3 to 7
  • Employees who reach or exceed challenging goals may be assigned goals for the following year that are impossible to attain

Researchers at Harvard, too, have found that goal setting can become problematic. Specifically, they refer to “stretch goals” — goals that are difficult to attain. On the other hand, they mention that goals that foster learning and mastery can be beneficial. My professional and personal experience certainly bears that out; in fact, I am a big fan of the opposite of stretch goals — small (or even tiny) goals.

What is your experience with goal setting?


LATHAM, G., & LOCKE, E. (2006). Enhancing the Benefits and Overcoming the Pitfalls of Goal Setting Organizational Dynamics, 35 (4), 332-340 DOI: 10.1016/j.orgdyn.2006.08.008

Isabella Mori

Isabella Mori is a psychotherapist in private practice in Vancouver. She has been working in the field of mental health, counseling, psychotherapy and movement therapy for 18 years.
See All Posts By The Author