Some resolve to sell more product, start a business, or move up the corporate ladder. And who hasn’t vowed to eat better and exercise more. While there are a number of benefits associated with goal setting, including increased effort and greater accomplishment, there is a sinister side.
In an article focused on organizational culture and behavior, Lisa Ordóñez and her colleagues observe that goal setting may result in a number of negative, unintended consequences. They propose:
… the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects nongoal areas, distorted risk preferences, a rise in unethical behavior, inhibited learning, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.
Organizations aren’t the only ones negatively affected by the goals they set. As individuals, if we perceive that a goal comes from an external source, arbitrarily imposed by others, our motivation and performance tend to decline. Also, an undue focus on outcomes may inadvertently cause us to miss the journey. Case in point: one afternoon I was hiking in the Grand Canyon and discovered that I was focusing on the accomplishment—reaching the campsite at the bottom—rather than the incredible vistas and bright cerulean sky; thus wasting an incredible, potentially awe-inspiring experience.
There are ways, however, to mitigate the downside of resolutions:
For one, we can focus on what is most meaningful. Goals inspired by values and meaning result in persistent determination and high-level achievement. When the pursuit of what matters most prevails, the resulting relentlessness knows no bounds. Kennon Sheldon, professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, notes that individuals who set goals that are congruent with their values work harder, achieve more, and, as a result, experience well-being. Similarly, the Holocaust survivor and eminent psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl observes:
Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.
Management at Google concurs with Frankl’s observation. They believe that one of the keys to a successful team is having members who find meaning in their work. Leadership in this organization has observed that teams achieve at the highest level when the task at hand is personally relevant.
Another way to leverage the benefits of a resolution is to focus on our moment-to-moment experience. Rather than focusing on the end—outcomes and goals—pay attention to the process of getting there, living fully in the present with a desired future in mind. We can reinvent ourselves each day by planning and executing a series of experiences designed to contribute to our success and overall well-being—all guided by values and the pursuit of what’s most important.
So this year, resolve to engage in meaningful experiences. Then, observe the results. Does this new tradition mitigate the sinister side of New Year’s resolutions and result in a more a productive and healthy you?
Happy New Year!
Faculty IU School of Medicine and Author of LEADERSHIP INSIGHT
(Download Chapter 3 Free)
 Ordóñez, L.D., Schweitzer, M.E., Galinsky, A.D., & Bazerman, M.H. (2009). Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of overprescribing goal setting. Academy of Management Perspectives, 23(3), 82-87.
 Sheldon, K.M., & Elliot, A.J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: The Self-Concordance Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology76(3), 482-497.
 Frankl, V.E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.