Much has been written in the last two decades on leadership principles but what interests me is not so much where we’ve been, but rather where we are going. Part of that journey involves goal setting and its implications for leaders. By exploring some current thinking, I hope to shed light on whether goal setting works and under what conditions.

Let’s begin with a 2011 article from Psychology Today titled Why Goal Setting Doesn’t Work. The author, Ray Williams, states early on:

“The inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioral or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns.”

The author correctly asserts that our brains are wired to resist change. The brain is a vast organ that plays so many key roles in our daily existence, so why wouldn’t it try its best to process the external world with as much efficiency as possible by working with patterns and categorizing experiences? However, in the argument against goal-setting, the author connects lack of attaining set goals as a trigger for potentially heightened fear of failure or even as a de-motivator of sorts in future situations—which based on my interpretation would not bode well for resilience in people either.

Williams also shares the following:

There are psychological manifestations of not achieving goals that may be more damaging than not having any goals at all.

  1. The process sets up desires that are removed from everyday reality. Whenever we desire things that we don’t have, we set our brain’s nervous system to produce negative emotions.
  1. Secondly, highly aspirational goals require us to develop new competencies, some of which may be beyond current capabilities. As we develop these competencies, we are likely to experience failures, which then become demotivational.
  1. Thirdly, goal setting sets up an either-or polarity of success. The only true measure can either be 100% attainment or perfection, or 99% and less, which is failure. We can then excessively focus on the missing or incomplete part of our efforts, ignoring the successful parts.
  1. Fourthly, goal setting doesn’t take into account random forces of chance. You can’t control all the environmental variables to guarantee 100% success.
  1. And, if the goal is not attained, we can often engage in thinking we are failures, not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough, etc. So the non-attainment of goals can create emotions of unworthiness.

The concept of mindfulness further complicates the issue. Mindfulness which has gathered the attention of brain researchers, coaches, psychologists and medical practitioners recently, focuses on being in the moment— the present. This creates an interesting dilemma for the goal setter, where the focus is on the future. How can one be focusing on the present while also thinking about the future?

These perspectives feel somewhat reductionist and pessimistic. I advocate that as psychologists, we attempt to inform and influence a new paradigm of 21st century approaches that is solution-oriented. So, instead of highlighting what is wrong with goals and what many people currently do to achieve them, emphasis should be on what is psychologically healthy and what creates opportunity for pathways to progress.

As some management experts note, instead of fostering a passion for work, we have fostered a passion for goals—which are either unattainable or unsatisfactory.

So what can and should leaders do? Breakthroughs in Quantum mechanics coupled with existing leadership principles in the field of psychology may offer some answers.

Part two of this blog article continues next week.